Parenting Methods That Work for Kids Who’ve Experienced Trauma

Effectively parenting children from hard places means going the extra mile to understand and meet your child’s needs. This blog explores the basics of trauma-informed parenting; parenting methods that work when caring for children who are often dysregulated due to trauma stemming from causes such as neglect, attachment disruptions, or abuse, common amongst children from hard places.

Understanding Complex Developmental Trauma

Trauma is an emotional response to an event that poses a threat or causes harm, whether physical, emotional, real, or perceived. While trauma can be the result of a single event, children from hard places often develop trauma from exposure to multiple events over time. Not having enough food to eat, being separated from loved ones, witnessing harm to a loved one, or being separated from the place you call home, can all be traumatic events. And the impacts of trauma can vary. Children may experience physical effects such as the inability to control physical responses to stress, or chronic illness. Their brains may have difficulty concentrating or they may have impaired memory. Emotionally, children may experience low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, difficulty forming attachment, or an inability to regulate their emotions. Impacts may also manifest behaviorally; children may lack impulse control, demonstrate aggression, or develop substance abuse. However, through trauma-informed parenting, parents can help their children heal.

Recovering from Trauma

One of the most important factors for helping children heal from trauma is identifying triggers. Triggers may be sounds, smells, feelings, places, postures, tones of voice, or even emotions. Some triggers may be difficult or time-consuming to identify but avoiding them goes a long way in helping children heal. Another factor that aids recovery from trauma is predictability. Children from hard places appreciate routine as it contributes to a sense of control. Predictability also applies to consistent care meaning that parents are emotionally and physically available, and demonstrate patience and listening skills. When a child can trust that this is the type of care they’ll receive, they can begin to heal. Above all, the goal is to seek attachment, crucial for recovering from trauma.

Trauma-Informed Parenting Methods—Seek Attachment

Developmental psychologist, Dr. Karyn Purvis, outlines six practical methods for parenting children from hard places and creating attachment:

  1. Meet Needs: Children have needs and finding out what those are is the first step in being able to meet them. The easiest way is to ask. Dr. Purvis often simply says to kids, “I’m a sure thing. Tell me what you need.” Often children from hard places have very little experience with an adult asking how they are feeling or what they need, so practice and patience is the key for gaining trust and words.
  2. Say Yes: Each ‘yes’ serves to build trust in a child’s trust bank. A good rule of thumb is to aim to say 7 yeses for every no.
  3. Make Eye Contact: Most of what we communicate does not depend on our words but our tone of voice and body language. In other words, our eyes speak louder than words. Getting down to a child’s eye level when speaking to them and encouraging eye contact is important for developing healthy attachment.
  4. Touch: Frequent and affectionate touch is important for children from hard places. But remember to pay attention to children’s cues to ensure they feel safe and comfortable being touched. Follow the lead of your child but do find creative ways to meet very real need for healthy touch. High-fives, holding hands and symbolic touch can grow into those snuggles and hugs parents long for.
  5. Mirror Behavior: It’s natural for families to match each other’s behavior. When a baby begins to use their voice, parents often mimic the sounds. When a toddler laughs, parents laugh back. These matching behaviors build trust and attachment, so long as behavior mirroring is never done in a mocking way. Children from hard places have often missed out on these opportunities and can benefit from intentional and consistent mirrored behavior.
  6. Follow: Giving children the opportunity to lead is crucial for instilling voice and power, both of which build trust and attachment. Offering children a set period of time during which they will lead and have your undivided attention can also help them develop their self-esteem.

Addressing Our Own Expectations

It’s been found that one of the most important things parents can do is address their own expectations about adoption. Many parents have big expectations for when they meet their child and challenges can arise if these expectations are not met. For example, believing (even if only subconsciously) that love should be enough to erase the impacts of trauma, is not a realistic expectation. Neither is believing that children from hard places should be grateful and willing to reciprocate the love they receive. Likewise, expectations that children from hard places should not feel a sense of loyalty or love toward people who caused them to experience trauma, are not realistic. Having realistic expectations about day-to-day life is important and will reinforce the value and perspective of trauma-informed parenting techniques. Some days may be filled with challenges, but others will be filled with joy.

A Final Tip!

Children from hard places as well as their parents can benefit from having a strong network of support. This can include loved ones, peers, mentors, mental health professionals, or spiritual leaders. Healing from trauma is challenging but it’s made much easier with the right support.