Trauma Parenting| First Steps: Where to Start When You’re Overwhelmed
Are you new to Trauma Parenting and feeling a little lost?
Like all adoptive (and foster) parents, you’ve spent countless hours preparing to bring a child/children into your home. You’ve finally completed the time–consuming process of the application paperwork, the home study, creating disaster plans, attending training classes, more paperwork, and the placement process… Now the whirlwind is over, your child is finally home, and you’re excitedly anticipating getting to know each other and establishing a new normal! Only…nothing feels normal. (FYI: This is completely normal in this circumstance…hooray!… Something is normal 😉 )
Maybe things were going great for a while and you were amazed by how “lucky” you were to have such an easy transition! Or maybe it’s been rocky from the day your child moved in… regardless of when it happens, you’re bound to discover that even with all that preparation, you’re actually completely unprepared for parenting this child you barely know! Maybe there have been way more meltdowns than you could have anticipated, or the attachment process isn’t going so well–it wasn’t “love at first sight” as you might have envisioned, or you’re beginning to realize there’s a whole heap of issues that need immense healing…
Where does a person begin??
Your child has been through a lot and the process of healing will take time. A lot of time. Eventually, you’ll get to know your child better and observe what triggers meltdowns, what makes them tick (or just ticked off!) and learn more about their hurts, gaining a better understanding of where healing is needed. Over time, you’ll discover several avenues to more effectively help your child through the healing process.
In the meantime, you need to know what to do right now.
There are some key things you can start with to establish a foundation, helping to set the stage for future, deeper healing.
12 Tips|Where to start when you’re overwhelmed:
1. Let go of unrealistic expectations.
Whatever your reasons for starting this journey–no matter what expectations you entered with–it probably looks nothing like you envisioned …and maybe never will. You should not expect to rescue this child, nor that their presence will complete your family. The only expectation you should hold on to is that no matter what, you will love this child.
The feelings may not be there immediately, but love is a choice. Love is an action… a sacrificial action.
Feelings will eventually develop as you continue to choose love through the ups and downs, failures and triumphs, exhaustion, heartaches, and joys. Love will always be the essential, but it will never be enough. It is because you love that you will learn everything else that is required to help your child. This will look different for every individual and circumstance, so let go of expectations and just commit to being intentional about loving and learning as you go– one step at a time.
2. Establish a predictable routine.
Routines are important for most children but are critical for children who have been through traumatizing experiences. In order for them to begin to feel safe in your home and learn to trust you, they need to be able to know what to expect. A consistent, predictable routine may feel boring and mundane to you but will be a wonderful asset for helping your child adjust. Meals, snacks, playtime, naps, baths, and bedtimes should fall as close to the same time each day as you can manage. Depending on the age of your child, a simple chart with the routines listed or pictured in order may be a significant help.
3. Ensure your child gets enough rest.
Trauma damages the brain and drains the body. Besides whatever traumatic experiences are in your child’s past, the move to your home will be another trauma added to the list.
Rest is a very key element of healing. You may be shocked to discover just how much rest your child actually needs. They may resist, but do everything you can to establish solid sleeping habits and consistent bedtimes into their routine. This will not only aid in healing but also help their ability to emotionally regulate.
* To help determine how much sleep your child needs, check out this chart over at the National Sleep Foundation and expect your child will need the higher end of recommended hours per day.
**Sleep issues tend to be common for children who have experienced so many life disruptions, so don’t be surprised if sleep doesn’t come easily. (My son didn’t sleep through the night until he was 7! Bonus tip: Don’t run out of coffee!)
4. Provide proper nutrition to support brain healing.
Along with rest, nutrition will play a vital role in providing a firm foundation for healing to begin.
Trauma and chronic stress deplete the body of vitamin C, lower the immune system making it susceptible to illness, cause inflammation, and a myriad of symptoms more numerous than we can cover in this article. For now, just know that proper nutrition is a MUST to begin the healing process.
- Provide plenty of fresh fruit and veggies, nuts, beans, eggs, and incorporate Omega-3’s and other healthy fats like coconut oil.
- Set consistent meal times and provide a small healthy snack option every 2-4 hours.
- Allow sweet treats SPARINGLY, and avoid artificial food dyes as much as possible- both can be big contributors to behavioral issues!
- In addition to vitamin C, consider adding magnesium to the diet to combat inflammation, reduce anxiety, and help your child sleep better when taken before bed (bonus!). This is just the short list of magnesium benefits and is a staple in our daily routine…if my son goes without it, we notice!
5. Give your child as many choices as possible.
Children who have experienced trauma have an intense need to control everything around them. Because so many things in their lives have been out of their control, they’re desperate to regain it in any way they can. This usually leads to intense power struggles and poor behavior… You can avoid some of these issues by offering as many choices as reasonably possible.
For example: Would you like eggs or oatmeal for breakfast? Do you want the blue cup or the green cup? Would you rather brush your teeth now or in 5 minutes? Would you prefer a hug or a high five?
By offering as many choices as possible, you’ll give your child the empowering gift of feeling in control of something. This takes some getting used to but will become easier with practice and is worth the effort! It’s not a magic bullet, but it does help.
*For more in-depth examples and to learn how and why this technique works, check out the book Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. (The focus is not on “trauma parenting” but is a very solid resource.)
Do yourself a huge favor and simplify everything you can for as long as necessary. Schedules and Meal Plans will be your friend! Take some time to compile several simple, healthy meal ideas and snack lists, then schedule meals and snacks at consistent times–use a calendar or planner and actually put it down on paper. This will save time and mental space, and when the inevitable questions of “what are we having for dinner?” surface, you’ll have the answer, further helping your child with the need for control and predictability.
If you’re accustomed to a busy social calendar this one might be harder to swallow…Say no to any extra activity that isn’t necessary. Until you understand your child a little better, you’re not going to know how they’ll respond in certain settings, what might trigger a meltdown or trauma reaction, or if they’ll attempt to inappropriately attach to someone outside your immediate family. Again, focus on establishing a predictable routine…you’ll all benefit from a simplified schedule as you adjust.
7. Remember the transition period is tough on everyone- extend grace.
There’s a lot for everyone touched by this process to learn and adjust to, and mistakes will be made. Don’t forget to extend grace… LOTS of grace. Grace for your child, grace for your spouse, grace for yourself, and grace for those surrounding you who don’t understand what you’re going through or all the necessary changes in your family. People truly don’t understand- I know it’s hard, but try to have grace and let go of any hurtful comments spoken in ignorance.
8. Give yourself permission to grieve your previous life.
There may moments when you will desperately miss the way things were before…when every day didn’t feel impossibly chaotic…when you weren’t completely exhausted every.minute.of.every.day…. when life was just…familiar. And that’s okay! Process the changes. Talk it through with someone safe (See #9).
Admitting it is hard does not negate or minimize your love or commitment.
Allow yourself time to grieve, but don’t get stuck there. Acknowledge your feelings, gather your courage and move forward, because raising this child may be difficult–but they’ve been wounded. They need you, and they desperately need to know they are precious and deserving of love. Yes, your past life may have been more peaceful, and it’s okay to grieve it, but this is an endeavor worthy of sacrifice.
9. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others when you need help or a listening ear.
Although you need time to bond and adjust, you shouldn’t isolate. Let people know why you have to disappear a little, but choose some trusted friends or family to check in with regularly. Finding someone who has walked or is walking a similar path would be especially helpful–feelings you didn’t know were possible may surface, and connecting with someone else who gets it is HUGE.
You should not try and do this on your own. It’s okay to need help and it’s okay to accept it! If people ask if there’s anything they can do…tell them! Even if it’s as simple as “I’m about to run out of coffee…could you drop some by?”
10. Realize that you will be training yourself just as much–if not more–than your child.
“Traditional” parenting/discipline methods do not work for traumatized children.
Most of us default to what we learned from our parents, but what worked for them probably isn’t going to work in this situation. This requires a LOT of retraining yourself to do things differently, but is so worth it! I highly recommend learning the Trust Based Relational Intervention / Empowered to Connect approach. This has been the single most helpful resource I have found.
11. Prepare for Spiritual Battle.
You are walking out the command to care for the orphans (James 1:27), so don’t be surprised if you experience some push back! There is a HUGE spiritual component to raising these children. There will be fears to cast out, lies to break down, and truth to speak into those places where the lies have lived. God is on your side and He will fight with you as you battle for the healing and souls of your children. Seek Him and practice listening for his direction. He knows every wound and struggle…He loves your children and He loves you with the perfect love that is only found in Him.
You will never have to walk through anything on your own if you stay by His side.
12. End each day celebrating the victories– no matter how small they may seem.
By the end of some days you may not like your child very much, but because you’re choosing to LOVE them, also choose to remember and celebrate the good moments.
What we think about becomes magnified in our minds.
Intentionally shifting your perspective and focus isn’t easy, but eventually, as you celebrate each small victory, you’ll begin to notice all those little moments begin to grow in your mind. Some days there are plenty of good moments– be thankful for the good!
Other days it can be a struggle to find anything good to celebrate, and though it may sound counter-intuitive, try to be thankful for the hard moments because God will use the hard things to bring about something very beautiful if you allow Him.
And on the days when it all feels like too much– have a cup tea, get some sleep, and remember that tomorrow is a new day. His mercies are new every morning.