My passion for vulnerable children for “children from hard places” began when my sister adopted a precious little girl from Vietnam 20 years ago and six months later, my husband and I adopted our daughter from Cambodia. Back then, we were given no training; no help understanding the effects her early life trauma and loss might have on her developing brain, her ability to attach to us or her emotional health.
About ten years later, I brushed off my dusty social work degree and became an adoption social worker with Bethany Christian Services. The training I received from Bethany and the books I found through my own research (none of which were available when we adopted) blew my mind! Having had five biological kids first, I noticed differences as we raised our adopted daughter. I had wondered at these things, but had no information to help me understand my observations. Once I had access to this new information, so many things began to make sense.
I have recently completed ten years as an adoption social worker and my daughter is now 21 years old. What I’ve learned over the years has given me some insight and hope that as adoptive parents, we can make a profound difference in the future happiness and success of our children. I continue to read everything I can find on the subjects of adoption, trauma and brain development. I list some of them at the end of this article. Reading them, and many others that have been published over the past 20 years, helped me navigate parenting my own daughter and enabled me to help the families I worked with parent their children more effectively. I hope this article provides some quick tips for one of the most challenging parts of raising children who have had a rough start in life. I hope it also gets you thinking about parenting in new ways that help your foster/adoptive children heal from their past trauma and thrive.
If you are not familiar with Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), you will find this article much more meaningful and helpful if you take three minutes to watch this introductory video first.
Children who have experienced trauma and have come into our families by way of foster care and/or adoption have been shaped by their experiences in ways we sometimes struggle to understand. Their brains are wired differently than “neurotypical” kids. They have learned ways of behaving and/or responding that helped them survive when life was frightening, chaotic or unpredictable. Now that they are safe, we need to help them achieve “felt safety.” We need to practice therapeutic parenting and purposefully work toward what therapist and author, Daniel Siegle, calls ‘attunement’ - allowing our own inner state to shift and resonate with the inner world of our child. When this happens our child feels seen, heard and understood. He or she is able to “borrow” our emotional regulation until it becomes theirs.
As we love and interact with our foster/adoptive children, our connection with them grows, as do our therapeutic parenting skills, but the process takes time. As time goes on, we are able to observe shifts in their emotional state and help them regulate before a meltdown occurs. Also over time, they learn how to appropriately seek our help before they feel out of control and finally, they heal and grow to the point where they can regulate themselves. This process takes dedication and patience. It often feels like “three steps forward, two steps back.” As we walk through the process, we need tools to manage challenging behaviors.
Our children’s behaviors can range from confusing to disturbing and even frightening at times. One common behavior that parents struggle with most is “melt downs” or “tantrums.”
Children experience a melt down when their negative emotions take them outside their “window of tolerance” and they simply explode.
Often this is the result of a “trigger” that brings back some past trauma.Think of a trigger on a gun. When it is pulled, what happens inside the gun? An explosion! And what comes out can cause harm and destruction. It’s a pretty accurate analogy.
When your child has become dysregulated and begins to have a melt down, there are a few things you should always do at the start of an “intervention.”
Check your own emotional regulation
You cannot help your child regulate their emotions if you are dysregulated yourself. Take a deep breath, notice your body language; your facial expression, stance and position. Relax your muscles, soften your expression, physically lower yourself to your child’s level and make eye contact. This mindfulness on your part removes any perceived threat and sets the stage for connecting with your child. If your child is refusing to look at you, gently insist in a playful way, by saying something such as “let me see those beautiful brown eyes!”
Make sure your child’s physical needs are met
For many children hunger, thirst, being too hot or too cold or overly tired are triggers in themselves. Think - when was the last time my child ate, drank or rested? Offer them a healthy snack, a drink of water or a rest on their favorite couch or chair. If they are cold or overheated, remedy that if you can.
There are also a few things you want to avoid if your child is on the verge of a meltdown.
Avoid saying the word “no.”
If your child has issues with control (which most kids with a trauma past do)- explore my recommended resources at the end of this article to help you understand why the word “No” can be a trigger in itself. Use positive words, even if you cannot allow what your child is requesting. Say something like “We will think about that together” or “Sure, we can do that sometime this weekend.”
Avoid trying to reason with your child
When a child is triggered, they are in fight, flight or freeze mode. Their “feeling brain” has taken over and they cannot access their “thinking brain” to even understand what you are saying. It may increase your child’s confusion, frustration or anger if you try to reason with them, or they may shut down altogether.
Once you have done the first two things and avoided the two “no-no’s,” you can choose from one or more strategies to de-escalate a meltdown. Below is a list of suggestions to put in your tool box. They are not in any particular order and they will not all necessarily work for all children. Use those that you find work with your child or you find work for specific problem areas. Also recognize that where you are in your relationship to your child at the time will determine how effective a strategy is, and therefore how you modify them and use them will change over time.
For example, if your child has only been with you for a week and you are just learning to understand their personality, needs, and triggers, you may find you need to maintain a distance that feels safe to your child, whereas if your child has been with you for two years and you have a very close and trusting relationship, a hug may be your first and most successful tool. As you parent you will no doubt modify and personalize these ideas to fit you and your child’s unique relationship.
Gentle touch: Usually on the arm works best, but as you learn what works for your child, it may be under the chin, on the back or a full hug.
Reflective Listening: If they are talking (or even yelling or screaming) reflect their words back to them. “So you mean….?” or “It sounds like you were really scared…” or “You’re saying you are really sad.”
Validate their feelings: Use age appropriate language to let them know their feelings are valid and important. Say something like, “That makes sense that you are so upset because…” or “You must feel so disappointed.” or “I can see your feelings are really big right now.”
Empathize: Similar to validating but more personal, letting them know you are on their side. You are there and focused on them. You are feeling their feelings with them. “I imagine you might just want to cry,” or “I understand how upset you must be.”
Reassurance: Answer their questions with short simple answers while ignoring verbal aggression. They may not have control over their tone of voice or be able to make appropriate word choices in this state. You can talk about that another time. Just hear them and answer their questions as gently as possible.
Movement: Take a movement break or a walk. Physical movement can get them out of their feeling brain and moving to a different space may remove the trigger. Approach this change casually, saying something like, “Let’s walk in the backyard while we talk.” If there is a particularly safe place for your child, and it is possible to move there, do so. If walking isn’t practical, just say, “Let’s stretch a little,” and lead your child in some large motor movements. This works best if you have previously taught your child some movement games/activities and they have experienced them as a calming thing. Google can help you find these.
Deep breathing: Gently invite your child to take a few deep breaths with you. Make eye contact and help them breathe in rhythm with you. Again, this is most effective if you have previously taught your child some deep breathing exercises and they have tried them and found them to be helpful in calmer times.
Decrease stimulation: Move to a quieter room, turn off music or TV. Quietly ask people to leave the room. The fewer things your child has to focus on or sift through to hear you, the better.
Distraction: I know, this sounds like a contradiction to number 8, but each has their own purpose at different times. Sometimes handing them a favorite toy, book or snack can refocus them quickly. Sometimes asking an easy question about a subject they enjoy can get them thinking of something else. Try something like “Should we go to the pool this weekend?” or “What would you like for dinner tonight?” Or even “Which superhero would you like to be right now? Or show them a funny video they like on your phone.
Regrounding: Similar to number 9, but with a little different purpose. If they have disassociated to a past experience, this can help reground them in the here and now and feel safe again. Ask sensory questions about their immediate surroundings. “Are the windows open?” “Is that a dog barking?” “What color is the couch?” “Are they your books?” Having them focus on something beautiful or interesting can do the same thing. “Look at those beautiful flowers’ or “Wow! A Bulldozer!!" and sit together and watch until they are calm.
Choices: Offer them a choice. This is a way to share your power with them and help them to feel in control. Ask them which of two options they would like (make sure both answers are acceptable to you). “Would you like to sit down or walk in the yard while we talk?” “Do you want to sit on my lap or on the couch?” “Would you like some milk or water?”
Silence: Sometimes some children just need silence to think their own thoughts or no thoughts at all with a safe caring adult nearby, to calm down. If they are young and it is comfortable for them, have them leaning on you while you take slow deep breaths. Soon, their breathing will slow to match yours.
Body Scan: Help your child do a simple body scan; mentally “scanning” their body to identify what they are physically feeling and where. (Again, this is a skill that can be taught in a fun way during play times when everyone is happy and relaxed). Ask them where they are feeling their feelings. Do they feel pain or tightness or discomfort? Accept their answer without judgement or instruction. Just listen actively with something like, “So your head hurts” or “Oh, your chest feels tight” or “Oh, you feel it in your tummy?” This information may give you a clue about how best to help or it may just help them stay grounded. At the very least, it helps them accept their feelings and know that they are important.
Once the melt down is resolved and you and your child have moved on, you may want to find a time when you are both calm and relaxed to process the incident together. Listen carefully for clues to your child’s triggers and in an age appropriate way, help them understand what happened. If they are older, approach it as something you can figure out and work on together.
If the meltdown was simply an inappropriate behavioral response to you asking them to do something or not to do something, discuss better responses. Ask them to choose one and talk about how to try that next time. Role play if you can to help them gain some motor memory of an appropriate response. Talk about the benefits of responding appropriately (we can stay at the park longer, your friends could stay and play longer, we would all feel more calm and happy through dinner...etc)
If, on the other hand, the meltdown seems to have been caused by a trigger, help your child to understand what a trigger is, and how and why it happens. You could say, “Something about our conversation must have reminded you of something bad or scary that happened to you before. It made you feel scared (sad, angry, hurt) just like it was happening again. Even though you are safe now, your feelings came back really big (again, use age appropriate explanations). When this happens again, maybe you can try this (offer one or two simple coping strategies). Normalize the process by saying something like, “We all have feelings from things that have hurt us in the past and it helps us all to learn how to cope with them and heal from them so they can stop hurting us or others.” Be careful to avoid communicating any feeling of judgment or shame.
As foster and adoptive parents, helping our children understand and deal with their emotional triggers is part of the natural parenting process.
Here is an example (used with permission). Our daughter was internationally adopted at 11 months old and was extremely malnourished when we brought her home. We homeschooled her until 6th grade, when she decided she wanted to go to school. One day when I picked her up from school, she told me that during the class before lunch when she gets hungry, she feels panic rising inside her. I explained to her that when we brought her home, she was very malnourished and while her brain did not remember it, her body did. When her body felt hungry and food was not readily available, it triggered a fear that she may not get what she needed. She understood that.
Together, we decided on a few coping strategies. First, since we are a Christian family and she was comfortable and familiar with prayer, I suggested first she pray; asking God to give her peace. Then we decided, she could look at the clock and remind herself that she would have lunch in just a few minutes. Lastly, we decided to put some healthy snacks in her backpack that she could grab anytime, even in class. She used these strategies for the next few weeks and eventually the problem resolved. She is an adult now and occasionally feels panic rising in her body when she gets hungry, but those simple tools have become automatic and help her calm her insides quickly.
Having these conversations helps kids who have experienced trauma begin to know themselves and what it feels like when they are triggered. It gives them a pattern to follow so when a new trigger arises they can handle it alone or ask for help. It is very rewarding as a parent to see these skills grow in your child and watch them mature into self-aware, emotionally intelligent adults. I am especially excited to see my daughter, who is working on her Master’s degree in social work and employed as a case manager at a non-profit working with young single moms, use these skills she has developed through her own experiences, to help others. And, I have to admit, having another social worker in the family is really fun!
The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegle and Tina Bryson
The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis
Brain Based Parenting by David Hughes