I spent several hours on the phone this week with a family that is in crisis. They are brand new to trauma-informed parenting and have reached a point of total despair. We have a mutual friend, and she thought I might be able to offer some insight to help them find their footing in the midst of a terrible storm.
Over the course of our conversations—I spoke with a parent and grandparents involved in caring for a highly dysregulated child—I tried to distill everything I know about trauma-informed parenting down to a few bullet points for them (which were fleshed out a lot during the hours we spent on the phone).
After we spoke, I wrote them an email in which I recapitulated what I shared. As I did that, I realized that, in my experience over the years caring for children who are often dysregulated because of early childhood trauma and neglect, attachment disruptions, and other neuro-atypical challenges (Autism Spectrum Disorder/ASD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder/ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder/ODD, etc.), this is what it all boils down to.
These are the pillars that hold up a trauma-informed parent.
The thing to note about pillars is that a structure can stand for a while if one of these is broken or missing. But without all of these in place, the structure is weakened and vulnerable to breaking down.
This is certainly the case for me. I have to be diligent in assessing how I’m doing pretty frequently—at least once a week. I need to look over the landscape of my life and interactions with my kids and see if the pillars are all standing. When they’re not, it is only a matter of time before a breakdown begins to occur. I snap. I scream. I say things I later regret. I scare the very children I am trying to heal. When things fall apart—or, more accurately, when I fall apart—I can always look back and see where one of these pillars was neglected or missing.
Here are the pillars.
Each one warrants a long conversation (and I have done YouTube videos about many of these concepts if you want to hear more.) This is also the main substance we discuss in The Flourishing Foster Parent (on live calls and in the recordings available to members after the fact).
When you are parenting a child who has experienced trauma and is acting out, defiant, or otherwise challenging, keep these things in mind:
- EMPOWERMENT. Look for ways to empower the child throughout the day. Offer a “decision-rich environment.” Instead of, “Get your shoes on and go to the car,” try, “Which shoes do you want to put on, the black ones or your sneakers?” and “Do you want to sit in the front or the back seat?” or “Do you want to buckle yourself or do you want me to buckle you?” or “Do you want to listen to music or just have it quiet?”
- CONNECTION. Spend time each day (10-15 min or so) on “Special Time” (or whatever you want to call it). This is one-on-one interaction between one child and one caregiver. During Special Time, the child gets to pick an activity (within reason) to do one-on-one. Playing Uno, a favorite video game, going to a playground, giving her a manicure, cooking, painting, etc. Let her choose the activity (again, this points to empowerment) and she gets your full attention during that time (connection).
- COMPASSION and EMPATHY for this hard season the child is in. “I know how hard this is and am so sorry you’re having to go through this. What would make it easier for you today?” When I have said this to a child who is struggling, the responses have included things like, “I want you to hold me,” or “I want you to play with me,” or “I don’t want to go to school” or simply, “I’m sad.” In my experience, a child will rarely offer, “I miss my mom,” but if I say, “Tell me something you remember about your mom,” or “Tell me something you miss about your mom,” it seems to tap into a felt need the child did not have words or feel permission to say. Reminding a child, “You’re safe here. We love you and we are so glad you’re here” can be really soothing to a child (once they are calm enough to hear you!). Support her need to connect with her mom (if this is an issue). In my experience, not all children in foster care or adoption want to connect with their parents. But often they do. Even if you end up adopting a child, it’s still important to periodically acknowledge their feelings about their first mom or dad. Affirm the good in their mom (or first mom) and please, please, please—avoid criticizing the child’s parent! This goes for children in foster care and children going through a divorce. To the child, that parent is part of them—half of who they are. If you are criticizing their parent, it will feel like you are criticizing them. If contact with a parent is not possible, suggest making a video (and you be as enthusiastic as you can about it). “Your mom is really beautiful, and you have her eyes!” “Why don’t you tell her about your trip to the zoo last week!” “Let’s make her a cooking video!”
- BUILD YOUR SUPPORT COMMUNITY. Find and join a support group. Get your child and yourself into counseling with a trauma-informed therapist. Make time to hone your trauma-informed parenting tools by reading articles, watching videos, or listening to podcasts (or join The Flourishing Foster Parent!) Find a few people who are also foster parents and connect with them regularly. I have a few people I text with to share both the failures and triumphs of the week. There is something so powerful about being in relationship with others who get it.
- MODEL EMOTIONAL REGULATION, especially when a child is dysregulated. This takes hard work and preparation, and, for me, this is the hardest part of parenting a child who is frequently dysregulated, because I can get dysregulated too!! This point actually ties closely to the next, which is…
- PRACTICE GOOD SELF CARE. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is for enduring the challenges of trauma informed parenting. Get your sleep (even if it means housework gets put off.) Exercise your body. Eat to fuel your body, not just to soothe your emotions. Stay hydrated. Make sure you have at least one hobby or interest outside of parenting, and make time for that. Get together with a friend for coffee, or at least catch up by phone, at least once a week. Pray. Practice mindful breathing and gratitude. Stay organized and maintain some margin in your schedule to allow for the unexpected. Give yourself time for a long shower or bubble bath a few times a week. Listen to music that feeds your soul. Dance with your kids. Laugh more. Find a way to get some space/time alone—even if it’s just taking a walk or running to the grocery store by yourself.
These are my “six pillars of trauma-informed parenting.” Like anything that is held up by pillars, your life can stand for a while without all of these in place. But you will be much stronger and more secure—and less at risk of burning out—if you are evaluating each of these areas and working to ensure they are solidly in place.
Here are a few more things I recommend:
Positive Parenting Solutions.* This program is based in empowering and connecting with your child, and offers thirty-seven “tools” for managing your children’s behaviors that are not traditional discipline or consequences (which don’t really work for children who are easily dysregulated). Some of the tools I use most are walking away from a power struggle, either-or statements, decision rich environment, special time, written schedules, etc. All of them are great, though. This is the parenting program I swear by (and have become an affiliate of—I’m such a believer in these concepts!)
Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors* (Book). We just finished our summer book study on this in The Flourishing Foster Parent, and I am already going back to review and refresh myself on the content. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s so important to be reminded of how to respond, because, at least for me, it is NOT intuitive!
Lastly, I have two videos to share, in which I share some fundamental concepts for trauma-informed parents to bear in mind:
If you are new to trauma-informed parenting (a new foster parent or parenting a child struggling with the effects of divorce or some other trauma), or you have been at it for a while but are stuck in some unhelpful cycles, I hope this helps.
I’d love to hear your feedback. Let me know if this rings true for you. What would you add? What are the pillars holding your life up?