My “Six Pillars” of Trauma Informed Parenting

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?

*Affiliate link

A Storm is Coming: What to Do When the Honeymoon Ends

[UPDATE: after I wrote this post, I revisited the term “honeymoon period” as the description of the first part of a child’s placement in a new foster home. As I thought about it, I realized how foster-parent-centric that term is, and I wrote another post to explore a better way to describe it. I am not changing the term in this post, because “the honeymoon period” is how most foster parents describe that season, and my goal with this post is to help resource foster parents and prepare them to handle that season well and do right by the kids in their care. That said, I hope going forward we can all be more mindful of how we talk about this season and choose a different word or phrase. Please be sure to read this post as well!]

Your license was finalized a few weeks back, and one week ago yesterday, a social worker showed up at your door with the first child placed in your care. Your months—years!—of dreaming and imagining and fantasizing about what it would be like to be a foster parent are over. A real, live child is in your home, sleeping in the Ikea bed you and your husband assembled together a few short months ago during the licensing process.

And you are tired. You are so. very. tired.

The friends who were so excited about your “journey,” who proclaimed what you were doing was “awesome,” are just a phone call away, but you don’t know what you would say if you called. None of them has ever experienced what you’re going through, and you’re not even sure what you’re allowed to tell them about the child in your care, so you haven’t reached out to any of them since the impromptu shower they graciously threw together a few days before your child arrived. You worked hard to craft that first Facebook post after he came, wanting to share this momentous occasion in your life, but, because of privacy concerns, you are not allowed to post pictures of your child’s face or share his name with your online community.

You are lonely. You are so. very. lonely.

And then, five, six, seven days after he arrived, a shift happened. Whereas it was all unicorns and sunshine at the start—he seemed friendly and congenial when he first arrived, eagerly eating the dinner you served and amiably washing his hands before dinner when you told him to—now a storm is brewing. He’s having temper tantrums several times a day. He is angry about the snacks you’re offering him (“I TOLD YOU I DON’T EAT APPLES THAT AREN’T PEELED!”), and when you told him to take a time out for the way he just spoke to you, he went into his room, slammed the door and emptied the contents of his drawers on the floor and closet, knocking the entire dresser over in the process.

He may have also peed in your shoes.**

He talks nonstop, interrupts you every time you’re on the phone, screams when you tell him it’s time to turn Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles off, refuses to wear the clothes you put in his drawers, and has lied to you at least three times in the past two hours. He bursts into tears at the drop of a hat—loud, long, wailing tears—and has started referring to you as “Mean Mommy” for telling him “no.” This morning he ran away from you in a store, hid from you, and when you aborted your shopping trip and carried him to the car to go home, he waited until you were on the road and then kicked you in the side of the head while screaming, “I’M GONNA MAKE YOU CRASH THIS CAR!”

The honeymoon is over. Reality has hit like a summer storm. The water’s rising and you are drowning.

What are you going to do?

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The end of the “honeymoon period” is a common challenge most foster parents face at some point in time. For some, it can look something like what I’ve just described. As a child begins to settle in to your home, he or she begins to feel more comfortable. (Remember, that’s a good thing!) He feels free to let down his guard and let some of his “big feelings” surface, usually aiming the barrel of his emotional rifle at you. Tantrums, incessant arguing, refusal to cooperate, lying, damaging your property, hitting you, running away, and doing just about anything he can to test the bounds of your commitment to him are marks of a child who is desperate for control of something in his life and determined to find a way to exercise some semblance of power over himself.

In other cases, especially with very young babies, the end of the honeymoon comes when the new foster parent begins to feel the exhaustion that marks parenting little ones added to the emotional exhaustion of caring for a child whose past and future in your life are big, fat question marks. Do you get attached? (Yes!) How attached? (Very!) Will you be devastated if they leave? (Probably! Yes!) This is your first baby—but she’s not your baby. She’s someone else’s baby. You just happen to be the one doing the holding, kissing, tucking, reading to, changing, dropping off at school, picking up from school, teacher-parent-conference-attending, Band-Aid-applying, laundry-washing-and-folding, vomit-wiping and rocking in the middle of the night. Lack of sleep, lack of a predictable schedule, unexpected calls from the social worker, unanswered questions and the lifting of the euphoria of having this new little person placed in your care provide a harsh reality check.

The novelty has worn off and reality is setting in.

Now what?

# # #

As I reflect on some of our experiences with different children who have been placed in our home, I can report that there is good news and bad news. Bad news first: the honeymoon always ends. It may not be terribly dramatic—a slight uptick in “little white lies,” increased bedtime battles, growing acts of defiance when it comes to cooperation with daily tasks. But, in my experience, it’s usually much bigger than that.

Now for the good news: it does get easier. Seasoned foster parents are usually not so caught off-guard when the honeymoon ends. We know it’s coming, we’ve learned to expect it, and we have developed tools for helping ease the transition into this new season of the foster care journey. More good news: getting through the challenging “end of the honeymoon period” can be a wonderful opportunity to build trust with your foster child and model healthy coping skills.

Here are five suggestions for all of us to consider when the honeymoon ends.

First, make sure to take breaks and get space daily, starting on day one of a new child’s placement with you. I spoke with a new foster mom recently, and she was weary. After being so excited to welcome her little one in, a few weeks later she sounded irritable and frustrated. I asked her about their schedule and routine and learned that she had only been apart from her new foster son for a few hours one day the previous week. He had not yet started back to school from his break, so they had been together day in and day out. She wanted to bond with him, which is a good thing, but she had not come up with a plan for making sure she had pockets of time to regroup once he arrived. The result was that she had reached a point where just about everything he did, said and asked grated on her last nerve. The child, sensing her frustration and edginess, had upped the ante on his frustrating behaviors. They had entered a cycle that all of us have been in at some point.

Bottom line is, you need breaks from each other. The child needs a break from you and you need a break from him. I say from time to time, “It’s good for me to have opportunities to miss my kids!” The opposite is true as well. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” isn’t just true for romantic relationships—it’s true for the parent/child relationship as well.

Plan for your breaks. Build them in to your schedule. Remember all those friends who said to let them know if you needed anything or if they could help in any way? Schedule them to come hold the baby so you can go to the store by yourself or take a nap. Ask them to take your older foster child for a playdate at the playground. Sign up for a membership at the YMCA and start using their drop-in child care so you can go to yoga, run on the track, or just sit in the hot tub and take a shower without anyone knocking on the door. (I’ve even been known to bring a book to the Y, sign my children in and then sit in the lobby reading.)

My point is, don’t wait until you reach the point of feeling irritable and frustrated: plan for the fact that you will, and make arrangements to have regular breaks/space from your child so that both of you can experience the joy of seeing each other again a couple of hours later.

(A word to those who advocate 24/7 togetherness at the start in order to facilitate the bonding process: I believe whole-heartedly in the importance of bonding and attaching, and I agree that being together as much as possible is vital to that process. When we had our first child, who was school-aged, he stayed home with me for two weeks before enrolling in school. That time was invaluable for us, but even during that time, I needed daily space. I needed room to process, catch up, and take care of myself. At the time, I didn’t realize how important that was, and I came dangerously close to burning out. The effect on my health, marriage, and more was stark. That’s why I’m so passionate about building in time for breaks at the very start not. In doing so, I am shoring myself up for the long haul and warding off the inevitable burnout that so many foster parents face. I also find that the process of leaving-and-coming-back is key to them learning that they can count on me to always come back. Whether I drop them at the Y childcare on Day Two of their placement with us or they stay with my spouse while I go out by myself for a couple of hours, while initial separation might be confusing and even traumatic, over time, it contributes to a child’s inner-ability to learn to trust, which is part of his emotional healing process.)

Second, make sure you are spending at least fifteen minutes of quality, uninterrupted play time with your foster child every day. If you can do it twice a day, even better.I am a big, big fan of Positive Parenting Solutions, and one of the things its founder, Amy McCready, emphasizes over and over is the importance of giving quality, undivided, fun attention to your children on a daily basis. (Amy is not the only one who reinforces this practice. I have seen it repeated in many parenting books and seminars. I just really love her explanation for why it’s so effective!) Doing this tells your foster child they are important to you, you see them, you hear them, you care about what they want, etc. In Amy’s words, it “fills their emotional needs basket” in a positive way, making them less likely (over time) to try to get attention in negative ways.

Let me take a moment and emphasize how huge this is for a child in foster care. When just about every choice has been taken away from them, when they have had no say over any aspect of their lives—where they live, what bed they sleep in, who tucks them in at night, what food is on the breakfast table, even what clothes and shoes are in their new closet—having built-in, daily opportunities to have a say in the matter, to feel a sense of control in their lives, is enormously important and goes a long way toward helping them return to calm when the storms hit.

In our house, we call it “Special Time.” Special time is one-on-one time between a parent and a child when the child gets to choose the activity and the parent is fully engaged. For us, it might be playing a board game, playing LEGOs, playing a video game together, doing each other’s make up and/or nails, playing school, taking allowance money to the store to buy something, baking cookies, reading extra books at bedtime, etc. Once in a while, we have “Extra Special Time,” when either my husband or I take one child out for a few hours of something fun, like a trip to an amusement park or out to lunch at a favorite restaurant.

We do this regularly with our children, and when we have a foster child join our family, whether they are with us for a week or a year, they are part of the Special Time schedule as well. And they love it.

Doing this does not eliminate the difficulty of the end of the honeymoon period, but it can shorten its effects dramatically.

The third suggestion I have for foster parents emerging from the honeymoon period is to identify at least two people you can text or call when things are hard. These are friends who are emotionally solid and are able to be stable when you are falling apart. In an ideal world, they are experienced foster parents, but if that’s not possible, at least having someone with some knowledge/experience of the effects of trauma on a child is very helpful. (One of my go-to friends early on was a high school guidance counselor. She had all sorts of insight into the context I was in when I would call or text her.) They are also friends who are gracious enough not to hold it against you that, in this season, it really is about you and your needs every time you contact them. Eventually things will get better and your friendship will go back to being one of give and take. But not today. Not right now. Right now, you need them to give emotional support and cheer you on—and you need to take it.

The fourth thing I suggest is that you brush up on your constructive (i.e. positive) parenting skills. As I’ve already said, I am a huge believer in Positive Parenting Solutions, because I have seen it work over and over again in our home with many children who have come and gone. Based in the premise that every child needs to feel a sense of power and a sense of belonging and significance, PPS is a system of parenting tools aimed at those ends. And if every child needs to feel empowered and significant, how much more so does a child whose entire world has been ripped out from under them need those things?

As my husband and I have learned and practiced this parenting style, we have seen so much growth in our relationship with our children. Our joy in parenting both our own children and our foster children has increased exponentially as we have utilized the PPS tools to reduce stress and conflict in our home. Even for those of you who have already raised your own kids and are now entering the world of foster care, I promise you, this program will help you so much. And PPS offers a money-back guarantee if it doesn’t work for you, so you really have nothing to lose in trying it out!*

(There are a number of positive parenting programs out there. I’ve done three of them, and in my experience, Positive Parenting Solutions is by far the best. But whichever one you learn and implement, do whatever you need to—books from the library, free webinars online, etc.— to get some positive parenting tools in your parenting tool box!)

The last recommendation I have for foster parents who are struggling post-honeymoon is to hang in there. Bear with him or her. Don’t give up.

It will get better.

I shared about this at length in this post a few years ago, which is now part of my state’s Caregiver Core Training Curriculum for every foster parent in Washington. I encourage you to read that article, but the gist of it is, when I was at my wit’s end with our first foster son, I reached out to a social worker I knew. She said that around four months in, I would see a difference. And I did. I am so grateful for the advice I got that day, when I was at the end of my rope, physically and emotionally exhausted, and bruised from my foster son’s most recent outburst.

I am glad we did not give up. But it didn’t happen quickly. The first few months were really, really hard, both for our child and for us. But over time, as four months turned to eight months, as eight months turned to a year, as a year turned to several years, we have seen so much growth and healing. And it has been so worth it.

The rhythm of foster parenting is pretty predictable. While it might look different in each family, I have heard from hundreds of foster parents over the years who have shared similar experiences. (For a humorous yet fairly accurate depiction of the end of the honeymoon period, the 2018 movie Instant Family did a good job of addressing it!)

While we can’t avoid the pain of certain aspects of foster parenting, we can certainly get ahead of it and take some steps to prepare ourselves to make the best of it.

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If you have experienced this, either as a foster parent or as a child in foster care, I’d love to hear about it! Please share in the comments or email me!

 

 

*(I’m such a fan of this program that I reached out to its founder and told her I planned to tell everyone I knew about it. She invited me to become an affiliate. Full disclosure, if you use the link here to sign up, I receive a small percentage of the fee.)

** This has not happened to me, but it has happened to several people I know. In fact, the description I’ve shared is a composite of several people’s experiences.