A few people in The Flourishing Foster Parent asked me to talk about how to handle it when your foster child struggles with rage.
I covered it in last week’s coaching call, I did a YouTube video about it, and I wrote this and this about it for the blog. Before I could really get into how to respond, I wanted to get upstream and talk about the trauma children in foster care experience when they are removed from their parents and placed with strangers. I wanted to talk about some of the reasons a child might fly off the handle and become enraged. I also wanted to offer some tools for calming your child and yourself when tempers are flaring.
One of the things I think is most important for foster parents to remember, though, is that our kids desperately need us to model healthy behavior, and that includes our reactions and how we handle ourselves in conflict. If a child has only ever seen chaos and violence (and many of our kids have), they have no idea what healthy emotional engagement looks like. We need to show them.
Unfortunately, this is harder than it seems. If you are anything like me, you have your own triggers, and when your child begins to escalate, so do you. That’s why it’s so very important for those of us who are caring for children who come from hard places to do the heavy lifting and work on our own emotional baggage. If you choose to parent a child from trauma, you can—you should!—expect that you will experience trauma as well.
Don’t be caught off guard.
Here are three things I recommend being mindful of if you are parenting a child prone to tantrums and rage:
First, more is caught than taught. Your child will learn how to relate to others emotionally by watching you and experiencing how you relate under stress and in conflict. If you are a screamer, you can expect your children to scream as well. If you are snarky or sarcastic when you are stressed, you will hear your words and tone come from your kids when they are stressed. However, if you are able to remain calm, take a deep breath, walk away, or demonstrate some other healthy conflict-handling skills, you will give your kids something to imitate that will actually help them. Their extreme tantrums may continue for a while, but in time, if you are able to be somewhat consistent with your healthy emotional reactions, it will begin to rub off!
Next, work on maintaining a flat affect and not reacting when your child begins to escalate. Whereas it is tempting to meet your child up in the emotional stratosphere, that only compounds the issue and makes matters wore. If your child is screaming and/or lashing out physically, do all you can to stay calm and keep the look on your face as flat as possible. (Don’t try to look like you don’t care and don’t act bored, however; that only antagonizes your child further, which is not the goal. The goal is to avoid feeding in to the negative emotions and give your child a calming look.)
Lastly, I find phrases like, “When you’re finished…” or “When you’re ready to be calm…” very helpful when my children are upset. Doing my best to maintain a calm demeanor and low voice volume, I might say, “When you’re finished crying, why don’t you come get me so we can discuss this,” then walk away. Or, “When you’re ready to be calm and keep your body safe, let’s see if we can figure out how to fix this together!” then walk away.
These phrases subtly offer the child some of the much-needed control he is seeking, while communicating that you will not argue or discuss it further until he is calm. (It is really important that if you do this, you actually walk away and work on that flat affect. Don’t circle back and repeat yourself or beg the child to engage with you! It loses all of its effectiveness if you do that!)
Never underestimate the power of empowering your child!
Now, one word about walking away from a raging child in your care: many children in foster care struggle with fear of abandonment. If you are walking away from a raging child in order to help them calm down or in order to do a little self care for yourself (a person can only take being screamed at for so long, after all), be mindful of the fact that this is a moment your child likely needs to know you are present and not leaving them. Walk away, but don’t stay away. Once you’re able to re-engage calmly, come back to them. Alternately, stay within eyesight, even if you are acting very involved with some task. The goal is to ignore behavior without ignoring the child. A child who has experienced long periods of time alone or who has been abandoned needs the assurance of your presence.