4- 6 Tips for Parenting Kids with Complex Trauma
If you’ve been following my posts, I’ve been writing a lot about some of the ways trauma affects us. My last post was specifically about the ways chronic, persistent trauma or neglect effects children. This article covers 6 of my favorite tips for parents or caregivers of children with complex trauma. While I wrote this with those children in mind, many of these strategies are also applicable to kids struggling with anxiety, ADHD, sensory issues, or on the autism spectrum.
Before jumping into the tips, I want to ask those of you who are parents or caregivers to take a moment to first acknowledge all of the work and energy you put into raising children. I think it can be easy to see these kinds of articles, and quickly feel judgement, guilt, or embarrassment. Parenting is hard, messy work. I have the utmost respect for the investment you make in kids every day.
On that note, we’ll start with some of my favorite tips…
1. It’s OK to Get Support
Sometimes parents feel embarrassed of how they are struggling, and face an unrealistic expectation that they be able to manage the serious difficulty of raising complex children with all of the right answers and right responses. I want you to know that you are courageous and brave, and that the love you offer your child is already making a difference. I know the pressure to “get it right” or not create additional trauma for your child can be overwhelming. I also want you to know that the mistakes are also opportunities. They present an opportunity to be human, and to acknowledge that we all sometimes make mistakes and have to make repairs. For children who may have deeply held beliefs that they are bad, unlovable, or just can’t get it right, seeing an adult handle a mistake with honesty and humility is a gift.
It is ok for you to need your own support in this process. This is incredibly hard work. You might need a space where you can ask for suggestions, and you might need a space where you can vent freely about the difficulties. You deserve a space where there is not judgement, and there is compassion, insight, and care- all of the same things you hope to offer your child. Parent support groups, online groups, meet-ups- whatever it might be. Your own self-care is essential, and it is ok to ask for that.
2. Behavior Has a Purpose.
In general, we do what we do for a reason. Often the behaviors we see from kids who are struggling with early trauma are confusing. They don’t seem to make sense- especially given the serious consequences many of the behaviors they exhibit. We might find ourselves thinking, “If you really want to have ______ (your tablet, technology time, a friendship, etc.) why on earth would you ______ (rage, break your phone, hit your sister, etc).” We find ourselves wanting to say, “Just STOP.” It’s hard to read through the subtleties of behavior to understand what the function of the behavior might be. Often, complaints I hear from caregivers include things like, “He/she/they just want attention,” or “he/she/they just don’t like being told no.” The challenge of recognizing behavior is functional is to look beyond what the behavior seems to communicate at the surface. We all learn strategies to cope with difficult situations; as we grow older we often start to recognize ways in which those coping patterns might have been maladaptive. Often the behaviors we see in kids are just that- maladaptive coping to incredibly difficult and overwhelming circumstances.
A few functional themes I often see in my work with kids include:
Avoiding uncomfortable feelings: When the trauma was occurring, uncomfortable feelings signaled a very real threat to safety. Hunger might have signaled a lack of food, or the neglect of a caregiver to provide it. Sadness might have signaled a parent was absent, passed out, or otherwise unresponsive. Anger might have signaled serious harm and violence. Happiness might have signaled emotional closeness to someone who was sexually abusive. The reminders of these feelings signal the body to activate a survival response that underlies many of the difficult behaviors.
A need for control: For kids with complex trauma, it is not unusual for caregivers to have been unreliable and unsafe; life was often unpredictable and chaotic. This can lead to intense and overwhelming anxiety, and a powerful need to feel in control rather than trust a caregiver who might be dangerous or unreliable.
Sensory difficulties: It is not unusual to see sensory difficulties in children with chronic early trauma. Disruptions in development can contribute to a wide array of sensory struggles. Sometimes this means a child has major reactions to clothing or textures, loud sounds, or a constant need for sensory input through non-stop movement. Sometimes working with an experienced occupational therapist is incredibly helpful.
Trust/Lack of Trust: Attachment to caregivers happens in our earliest relationships; the attachment patterns we develop tend to be the patterns we carry with us. Kids who are dismissive of caregivers, overly anxious when separated from caregivers, or alternate between these two responses often have patterned insecure attachments, and respond to adults in these ways as a result.
3. It’s Not Personal
If we can understand the possible function of behavior, we can start to separate the behaviors from being personal to us. Often, parents feel rejected, sad, and helpless. Kids have an uncanny ability to make us feel what they are feeling. I often use this in therapy sessions with kids. When I notice myself feeling frustrated, rejected, or sad, I often take it as a signal to check in with the child about whether or not they are feeling the same thing. I worked with a child for a long time who hurled toys at me for a majority of the session most of our initial sessions. I would leave feeling rejected and helpless. I also knew that this was likely the way the child was feeling, and committed to offering safe and calm redirection, and separating the behavior from the person. Over time, we were able to develop a safe therapeutic relationship and the throwing stopped. It’s ok to acknowledge how hurtful a behavior might be, and to discuss that with a child. For caregivers, much of the work is to not internalize the belief that they are ineffective or that the child is not interested in connecting.
4. Remember the Body
I often encourage parents to notice the kinds of movements or body-based behaviors their kids enjoy. For example, does your child rock when upset, or seem to enjoy lifting and carrying heavy objects? Does your child seek out non-stop movement that often seems excessive or risky? Often these are the sensory and body-based inputs that can be soothing to a child. I encourage parents to find ways to channel these into body-based coping strategies for their child. This can include things like using a rocking chair or swing to regulate, weighted blankets, loading up a wagon with an appropriate amount of heavy weight for a child to pull, using a mini-trampoline for jumping, or establishing a safe obstacle course for movement. Structured classes such as yoga or karate can be incredible ways for kids to learn how to notice, control, and use their bodies in healthy ways.
5. Practice Mindfulness
The process of differentiating from our caregivers is a long, long process. Many of us find ourselves reflecting on how, even well into adulthood, we still feel attached to our parents’ approval or opinions. Young children are very closely tied to their caregivers. Take a moment to remember the first time you noticed your parent was not perfect or right all of the time, or felt frustrated because a parent’s emotional response was, for the first time, felt to be annoying and not actually about you. Prior to this differentiation, we often interpret our caregiver’s thoughts, actions, feelings, and beliefs to be deeply personal and true to who we are. Kids are very perceptive and sensitive. They notice and feel the subtle or overt shifts in mood and family dynamics when these occur.
With that in mind, I encourage parents to know their own triggers. What are the thoughts/actions/behaviors that are upsetting to you as a parent, and how do you typically respond? We often want children to change their behaviors, and sometimes forget to reflect on how our own reactivity might be influencing theirs. Mindfulness allows us to observe our reactivity, and take a step back to regulate ourselves when we notice a trigger. Modeling regulation can be critical for kids. Co-regulating with your child can also be helpful. This can look like taking a walk together, agreeing that you both need to take time and space before addressing a problem, or breathing together.
6. Cope When It’s Calm
Coping skills are great! And they are hard to use when we need them the most. If we are not skilled at noticing when to use the skills, they often fall flat and remain on a list on a fridge or tucked away in a coping skills toolbox. Coping skills are designed to help re-wire the brain to learn a different response to a trigger. When a trigger happens, we have a deeply ingrained patterned response to it. It’s one we developed out of a need for physical or emotional safety at some point in our lives. Re-wiring the brain for a different response requires consistent repetition over time. I encourage families to practice coping skills daily- and to start practicing when everything is calm, gradually increasing to using the skills when under distress. A therapist I work with recently told me about using “anger drills” with families in which they run drills for how to respond to emotional upset when everyone is doing fine. This helps our brain start to recognize the possibility of a new response, and be able to use it down the road when we need it.
This list is far from comprehensive, but I hope these strategies offer a way to re-think parenting at the times when it is most difficult. At the core of these suggestions is compassion. I believe this is a foundational skill for any parent. Learning compassion for yourself and compassion for your kids creates the foundation from which you can build healthy coping strategies and positive relationships.
Thanks for taking the time to read. Click here to download the 6 Tips for Parenting Kids with Complex Trauma Infographic.
Resources I used in writing this include:
Treating Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents: How to Foster Resilience Through Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency by Margaret Blaoustein and Kristine Kinniburgh
Self-Regulation Interventions and Strategies: Keeping the Body, Mind, and Emotions on Task in Children with Autism, ADHD, or Sensory Disorders by Teresa Garland, MOT, OTR
Meg Hamilton, LPC is a therapist practicing in Durham, North Carolina. Meg is an art therapist and specializes in therapy for trauma as well as in supporting LGBTQ+ youth and families. Meg’s work is upheld and informed by a commitment to social justice. Learn more at www.birchcounselingdurham.com.