3 Reasons Traditional Parenting Doesn’t Work With Kids From Trauma.

If you’ve parented a child from a traumatic past for any length of time, you already know that traditional parenting techniques do not work. But, have you ever stopped to consider why, or what you could do differently?

Sad little girl sitting in a corner

Kristin and I both grew up in traditional households, with parents who used traditional techniques in raising us both. There were rules and restrictions, guidelines and boundaries. And if said rules, restrictions, guidelines and boundaries were crossed, BAM, consequences were enforced. No questions asked. From all accounts, these techniques worked. We both grew up to be responsible adults who knew the difference between right and wrong. But, we also never endured significant trauma as children.

And that was the game-changer. When we first became parents, 15 years ago, we thought we had a healthy understanding of how to parent. We thought we knew how to discipline, how to enforce consequences, and even how to get our point across. In 2004 a little girl and boy came to live with us through foster care and, soon after, became a permanent part of our family. When the little girl turned 7 I caught her in a straight up lie. When I asked her why she lied, she just stared at me. So, logically, I continued to question her…and question her…and question her. This caused her eyes to start darting around the room. She wouldn’t look at me. Only a worried look on her face.

She would open her mouth to speak but nothing came out. I’d love to tell you my heart gave way and I stopped. Not the case. I became more frustrated. Finally, I’d had enough and marched her off to her room. The night was over for her. In my mind, she was content with her “bad behavior,” and thus, needed a stiff consequence: time away from others to “think” about it. For several more years I parented this way. If you screwed up, BAM, consequences! It’s how I was raised…so you better believe it was how my children would be raised.

But, mind you, my childhood was different. I was never starving. I never bounced from foster home to foster home before finding permanency. I never witnessed domestic violence. I never grew up in an orphanage or group home. My mom and dad always took care of me, more importantly, were always there for me. All of the ways children bond with their parents from the get-go, were missing for my children early in their development. And the result was deep cavernous wounds in their minds. Truth is, they’re often the very things we gloss over when we are attempting to enforce a consequence or get our point across when our child has screwed up. When I finally realized this, it changed the way I approached my children, and reacted to what I thought was just bad behavior.

I’ve discovered that traditional parenting, the way I was parented, just doesn’t work with our kiddos. Here are 3 reasons (out of many) why this is the case…

  1. Trauma changes the brain. If your child was drug and alcohol exposed in utero, subject to abuse of any form before coming into your care, malnourished, neglected, or in and out of foster homes before arriving into your care (just to name a few), their brain has been altered by this trauma. They don’t see the world around them the same way a child who has not been through significant trauma does. Nor do they behave the same (more on this in a minute). They are thinking, behaving, reacting, and surviving out of loss, most of which has occurred in their mind. That’s why you cannot look at your child and ask, “What were you thinking?” Chances are, they don’t know. And if you continue to demand an answer, or lecture, you will continue to get less answers, or simply, blank stares.
  2. Their behavior is a voice. For years I thought my son’s choices, reactions, and attitude, were coming from a bad kid who behaved badly. I disciplined him according to this belief. And then one December night, I stood indignantly in my upstairs bathroom while he threw the mother of all tantrums and attempted to tip over a solid steel claw-foot bathtub. I was furious. I wanted to ground him for life. He was traumatizing my other children and causing me to miss out on a relaxing family movie night. But then suddenly, in that moment, like a lighting bolt striking a tree, a thought struck my mind. While he was behaving badly, it wasn’t due to him being a bad kid. His behavior was a voice from his traumatic past. It was an outcry. He was in a fight…not against me, but against an intense situation that he could not process. When I realized his behavior was actually a voice, I started disciplining and enforcing consequences differently.
  3. Fight, flight, or freeze. Inevitably you’ve heard of this survival mode, whether you’re parenting a child from trauma or not. This is used to explain how every human being reacts to major traumatic, terrifying, dangerous, or intense situations. We see a fight break out on an airplane, we respond in one of these three ways. We experience something devastating or deeply traumatic, we respond in one of these three ways. Someone yells “bomb” or “fire” and we shift into survival mode. While these are very common human reactions when the heat is on, they also help us understand a child who’s come from trauma. This is how our kiddos respond to intense situations (i.e.- when they’re caught in the act of doing something they shouldn’t do). If you’re a lecturer (like we are), you’ve probably noticed it doesn’t work. But, you’ve probably also noticed these three reactions on display. In their mind, when we are lecturing (for example) a series of alarms are going off in their mind, telling them to either fight back, run away, or shut down. It was their defense mechanism when they were in the midst of their highly traumatic past (i.e. abuse, neglect, or witness to something dangerous). In the case of me lecturing my daughter, all those years ago, after she was caught lying, she shut down (or froze). It’s not because she wasn’t smart, or incapable of speaking. She was in survival mode.

I could write a book on all of the many reasons we can’t parent our kiddos with traditional parenting techniques. I’ve heard from hundreds of thousands of readers who have realized this truth but struggle to help their parents, grandparents, coaches or youth leaders understand the same thing (simple because of the way they grew up, or the generation they’ve come from). However, when you can grasp the reality that traditional discipline, lecturing, time-outs, restrictions, boundaries, and consequences just don’t work, you open up a entirely new horizon for yourself and your children.

You may be asking yourself, “Well, then what should I do when my child blows it, or makes a bad choice? If traditional discipline doesn’t work, what does?”

Great question! Before I attempt to answer, I am going to default to the best resources I know, that are available today…

Question: Are you parenting children from trauma? What are some roadblocks you’ve encountered in disciplining and reinforcing consequences? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Heather Kennedy

    Thank you so much for these helpful resources. Very eye-opening and insightful. I’m hoping that we will be able to learn new ways to discipline if we are able to be licensed. We’ve already spent 20 years traditionally parenting 2 blessings, but hope to open our home to more children through fostering.

    • It’s our pleasure. Glad our resources can help! 😉

  • Dawn Baggett

    Thank you!

  • Amarie10

    We currently are in the care of two small children both from an unpleasant background to say the least. The older, who had been thru more trauma, is nonverbal and it feels like nothing works when it comes to discipline. She shuts down completely and it breaks my heart to see her look so lost and confused. Thanks for the words and resources!!

    • We totally know how this goes. Hang in there.

    • Candy Joubert

      Try Circle of Security techniques to match the non-verbal child’s emotions through sighs, hums, breathing, and “being with” her in a calm way while you mirror her emotion (even if you have to guess what the emotion might be, the physical breathing, hums, and sighs will connect with her). You will know you have connected when she tunes into the environment more, by looking around and/or eventually makes eye contact with you. From there you just smile gently, sigh with pleasure at her coming back to connection (the eye contact tells you she is seeking connection). After a little while (could by 5 minutes, could be 20) her left brain of words and decision making will likely be able to receive help verbally through questions, correction, or talking through the thing, whatever it is. Do this every time to build emotional connection and trust with her. Eventually you will be able to do it, be with her in this way, even while driving, cooking, or other living tasks. At first, though you will need to focus your own mind on staying present to mirror her. If you are a believer, you can use this time to listen to the Lord’s guidance on what she needs.

  • Stefanie

    We are having major problems at school. We understand him at home and how to motivate him with us, but school is a different story. We aren’t there. We’ve provided lots of suggestions to the teachers, but the traditional classroom and ESE classroom is not working. It seems like it’s making things worse.

  • deplorable jmc

    One thing that seems to work with my boy, age 7, is something I learned from a psychologist is to look him right iris to right iris when making eye contact for positive communication. It seemed silly, but somehow the “I love you” sank in deeper when I said it with that kind of eye contact.

    • Eye to eye contact is key. Thanks for sharing this!

    • James

      We definitely make eye contact with our kids. I’m looking forward to trying the right eye to right eye contact. It adds extra significance or importance to whatever it is you’re trying to communicate. Might even try it with my teen girl when she promises me she’s going to clean her room. I’ll make her look me in the right iris. Thanks for the advise.

  • Janet Robinson-Gillmore

    I am reading this as a concerned grandmother of a 7 year old boy in an incestuous relationship with his mother. The system hasn’t helped yet because I have become alienated. My grandson adores me and his grandfather but his mother restricts our connection to him. I would like to know how to help when I do see him because he is disciplined seriously by both his parents who have never lived together. He thinks he is a bad boy. What small things can I say to him or do with him that will lessen the damage that he is experiencing. It is evident in school but no one wants to deal with it. Thanks.

    • Janet, we are so sorry to hear that you are dealing with this. I think that reassurance that he is not a bad kid when have the chance is key, but also, patience. His behavior is a voice from his trauma. When you can keep that at the forefront of your thinking, it’s a game-changer. Reassurance, patience, consistency will help you build a strong bond with him.

    • Dawn Goebbels

      Mike, is there some way to hide the above poster’s ID to protect the ID of the child?

      • Good eye Dawn. One of our support team members saw it and deleted it. Hopefully she will reach out directly to us over email so we can discuss.

      • Janet Robinson-Gillmore

        Thank you Mike. I appreciate your response. Eventually he will tell the right person
        and then we can help him heal after the fact also.

        Regards,
        Janet

  • Mel
  • Erin Becker

    I am dealing with a child who feels I have chosen his step dad over him. As a result he does not respect me. He throws tantrums ie: throwing things at me, kicking, cursing, biting, property damage. My husband doesn’t want to spend time with him in the event he has a tantrum and legal problems arise as they have before.

    • Marie Hickman

      Maybe you have chosen your husband over him. And that is very sad.

    • Erin, we are so sorry to hear this. Have you considered trying couple’s therapy with your husband as you work to parent your child? Just wondering.

  • James

    One thing I learned from Karyn Purvis (author of The Connected Child) is that a child can’t be in a fearful place if they are laughing. This may not be great advice for every father out there but for my adopted boys (brother, 7 and 4), who love to roughhouse, when they shut down or tell me to get away from them, I do just the opposite. I sit on them and find a venerable foot or armpit to tickle. Or, I’ll give them a bear hug and endless kisses and won’t let go until I break them out of their little mood. Through play, I force them to be connected in that moment. They come to expect it now. It’s almost a game. If I’m sitting on the 7 year old, his little brother will want in on the action and try to come to his rescue knowing I’m probably going to sit on him and tickle him too.

    I am a father of three biological girls and would have never dreamed of being so physical with them. However, my girls are much more connected and never have told me to leave them or to get away from them. My wife likes to call this form of interaction deep-tissue therapy/massage. I just like to tell people I sit on my kids.

    • James

      I’ll also add that our boys do not have a history of physical abuse. Again, I would not recommend this for everyone but the physical contact has really helped them with bonding and touch. We couldn’t even hold our oldest son for a long time. It was just awkward for him to be hugged or touched. He wasn’t use to it. He’d watch us hold his little brother who would rest his head on our shoulder and fall asleep. He wanted that experience for himself. He’d then ask to be held but would get upset because he couldn’t get comfortable. He’d immediately stiffen up and ask for us to put him down.

      • Lenore Paletta

        That’s another form of trauma. Find a better way.

    • Midori Verity

      Wow, I love this form of parenting! Well done James and I applaud your creativity to find a positive way to break a pattern.

    • Just so you know James, too much tickling can be abuse if the child cannot get away from the tickling.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Tickling works for us sometimes too. Sometimes:)

  • Frank Smith

    Hi Mike. Could we please have the remainder of your enlightening article. “Before I attempt to answer …” suggests that there is more to come.Thanks.
    Frank

    • Hey Frank, thanks for reaching out. The remainder is in the resources I share after that sentence. However, we are working on a future post that centers around what to do when your child blows it. Stay tuned…. 🙂

      • Karen F. Davis

        Not everyone will go to the lib rary or buy these books–if you have read them, please share your wisdom gained from that–

        • Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what you guys are asking for, but this is a blog post, not a book. We like to keep these at a 1000-word maximum. That’s why we provide the links for you to easily order through Amazon or another outlet. 🙂

      • Nora Orsini

        Could you please be more specific? Which resource? I am a teacher and would have loved to have shared this so teachers can gain a better understanding of kids from trauma and how to work with them in the classroom.

  • Collette Bakken

    Great article, while we are no longer fostering, I’m 76. We fostered for 12 years and dealt with many different personalities and trauma. this may sound strange to some but my best teachers were my horses in learning how to handle the flight, fight or freeze problems. They and a poem I love ” he drew a cirlcle to shut me out, rebel, heretic, a thing to shout. But love and I had the wit to win,,we drew a circle that took him in’ We weren’t always successful by the states standards but I honestly feel the kids were better for having experienced our home. Some still keep in contact altho they lived with us more than 15 years ago. We did adopt 2 one who is 13 now andis doing very well considering his injuries as a “shaken baby’

    • So glad you enjoyed the article Collette. And good to hear that your 13 year old is doing well.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Yay!! Thanks for your example!

  • Niki Ochonicky

    I’m curious about the ages involved. I am stepmom to 11 and 13yr old kids whose mother passed away 2 years ago after a 4 year illness. While neglect wasn’t intentional, it did happen merely because focus was on the sick mom. We have found that in some cases traditional consequences work, with a little tweak here and there, but in others nothing seems to teach them.

    For example, tantrums were common and ruined many family events until our response became to limit ourselves to 3 specific questions, and then let them be for a while. Because their tantrums were attention seeking, the questions addressed it and let them know we care, but not focusing on the behavior didn’t get them the ‘fix’ they were looking for. Tantrums have all but stopped and communication greatly improved.

    On the other hand, taking responsibility for their possessions is an ongoing battle. We have taken things away for a week (kept in The Box until Sat), piled them on the bed, helped them clean up like I did when my son was very young, and NOTHING makes a dent. So what voice is that?

    • Ginny Barrett

      I would like to ask if you could please share an example of such a tantrum and then the 3 questions you would ask for that instance. Thank you so much for your comments.

      • Niki Ochonicky

        The day we started this idea, my stepdaughter was upset about what restaurant we went to for dinner with my in-laws. She was talking nasty to everyone (like only a teen girl can – you know the tone!), walked through the restaurant doors only to let them slam shut behind her, nearly hitting her grandmother, flopping into her seat, huffing and muttering and carrying on. In the past, everyone would spend the entire meal trying to cheer her up, asking what is wrong, and basically giving her 100% of the attention and not letting us visit and enjoy the time with our inlaws. We realized that it was, to a large extent, attention seeking behavior. That doesn’t mean her feelings aren’t valid, though, either! There are certainly times that she is expressing a valid need and doesn’t know how to express it. So we came up with:
        1) Is the problem something we said or did, besides just saying “no”?
        2) Is the problem something we can help you with?
        3) Is the problem something you want to talk about?
        This approach let her know that we care about her feelings, and didn’t want to ignore them, but if NO is her answer to all 3 questions, then “if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything” is enforced. The hardest part was getting her grandparents and her siblings to ignore the behavior after that. But they did it, and her mood/fit/tantrum resolved itself. We use it now on all 3 kids. The rest of us can enjoy our time together, and I think 20 minutes is the longest that those moods have lasted. It also has helped when there IS a real issue, such as the way one of us said something, or not understanding the reason for a “no”, and it opens communication in a much healthier way.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      I know for my son, cleaning up is very overwhelming for him. Always has been. I imagine always will be because he’s now 11 and he still gets frustrated with the task.

  • Susan

    My 4 yr old son was abused, starved, drugged and God only knows what else. He is showing lots of aggression. He is the most loving boy but a switch flips and the next second he explodes usually at his younger & older siblings or classmates. I’m exhausted. I’m not sure how to get thru the summer.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      So sorry, Susan. Me too. Summer is hard. But my daughter also struggles at school as well so it’s a love/hate with school too. You are not alone.

  • Tammy Taylor Phelps

    I am MARRIED to a grown man who had a traumatic childhood, and I am seeing exactly what you spoke about here. I think he may even have PTSD, am wondering if any of these resources might be helpful for me.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Hi, Tammy! It is quite something when we realized the same issues in adults whether it’s ourselves or our family/friends. I recommend seeking out a trauma therapist. They are not all the same and you will have to interview them. One good question to ask is if they understand developmental trauma. Here’s a list of highly recommended trauma therapists. Most are probably for kids but if you find one in your area, they might know of someone for adults.

      • Tammy Taylor Phelps

        Thank you!

  • Peggy James

    My daughter’s father was abusive, a few times to her, but a number of times with me in front of her, when we parted, he agreed to let me go, but instead of honoring his words he terrorized us across country, tried to have me arrested and put us both in a constant state of trauma. I have raised two other daughters that had nothing like that experience and my youngest is a different child and requires different parenting. Because we both suffer from PTSD, I’m lucky enough to be able to stand back and think about how I would want someone to deal with me in similar situations, if I was a child – there is a lot of apologies, talks about our frustrations, hugs to make her feel safe when tempers could really be flared… because she doesn’t feel safe… and when you have been witness to abuse, anger means somebody gets hurt – so you love the child, not the behavior and model the behavior you hope to see. I have an amazing daughter.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      So sorry this happened!!!! This is awful. So glad you have each other.

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  • Excellent resources listed here! The trauma to both my sons’ brains from their earliest days (even in utero) resulted in a disconnect in their logic, making discipline exceptionally challenging (if you can’t connect cause to effect, all discipline seems unfair).

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Yes, in utero!!!! My kids too!

  • Tony Bruno

    I was adopted at the age of 3 and was removed from my biological parents at the age of 3 months due to brutal child abuse. I had a ruptured spleen and cigarette burns on my back. Looking back on my childhood from what I can remember, #3 describes me to a T, and to this day, I still find myself wanting to flee when I get hurt. I have a difficult time trusting people and letting them in. I felt alone, was treated differently than my brothers, so I looked to my friends for that void. I still to this day, do jot know how to feel with what’s inside me.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Hi, Tony! First of all, I’m so sorry this happened to you. Thanks for being so vulnerable and sharing with us. We adoptive parents can learn so much from adult adoptees. I hope you are able to find some good counseling from a trauma therapist that can help you work through this. Maybe even some counseling with your parents so you can all walk the road to healing together. We parents don’t know sometimes why our kids act the way we do and we revert to the ways we were parented. Which usually is not the right way. May you find peace knowing that you are not alone either and you are valued just the way you are.

  • Ericka Jackson

    This is a great resource! I just wish they’d elaborated a bit more on #1. They talk about neglect and abuse, but there are lots of other things (that most people dismiss) that cause “significant trauma”! Losing birth mom at any time (even at birth) causes trauma. Infants have already bonded in utero. Losing other caregivers a child is bonded with also causes trauma. Growing up in an orphanage (even a “good” one) causes trauma and developmental delays. And for internationally adopted kids – losing caregivers, friends, language, culture, and home all at once is majorly traumatic! All of these things affect a child’s brain, development, emotional health, etc. But most people think that if they weren’t physically abused they haven’t been through trauma.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Yes, this is so very true. I have 4 kids adopted internationally and the trauma we have experienced is huge. And most don’t believe us because 2 of our kids came as infants. I could elaborate a lot on this topic!

    • Jeremy L

      This is true! We picked up our son from the hospital and he displays these behaviors. I believe that the trauma of adoption itself (a feeling of rejection from birth mom, not belonging, etc.) and the fact that he is often the only african american person around is very traumatic for a young brain and heart. It wasn’t until we started reading up on trauma influenced behavior that we began to understand his behavior.

  • Paula Henderson

    Love this. Thanks for sharing. Over the past 20 years I have often seen the ‘blank stare’…this was a reminder it is the mental processing…

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Get that stare all the time!

    • Yeah we get that from one of ours too.

  • Robert Hafetz

    Further complicating the adoptive family system is a memory process that is common among adoptees but little known by therapists, social workers, parents, and the adoptees themselves. There is a disconnection in adoptees between their emotions and their ability to identify them. This is the core issue in adoption and it is the foundation of most of the problems that occur in adoptive parenting.
    Infants only a few days old can record long term memories. “Infants do not think but they do process emotions and long term memories are stored as affective schemas” (Geansbauer, 2002). An infant separated from its first mother will record a memory of that event. Memories of this nature are called preverbal memory representations and they have a unique quality that must be understood by adoptive parents. “Infant memories are recalled in adulthood the same way they were recorded at the time they occurred. It is difficult possibly impossible for children to map newly acquired verbal skills on to existing preverbal memory representations” (Richardson, R., & Hayne, H. 2007). An older adoptee who recalls an emotional memory will experience it the same way it was felt as an infant. Adoptees can have troubling memories that they cannot identify in words. This means that they cannot understand what they are feeling and without a vocabulary they cannot even ask for help. This leads to a cognitive /emotional disconnection. “Children fail to translate their preverbal memories into language”(Simcock, Hayne, 2002).
    An adopted child will learn from his family that he is wanted, loved, belongs, and that they will never leave him. His emotional memories will trigger fears that are exactly the opposite. An adopted child can know he belongs but feel isolated. He can know that he will never be abandoned but feel that he will. He can know that he is whole but feel that a part of him is missing. He can know that he is loved but feel that he is not. This incongruence between thoughts and feelings becomes the foundation of poor attachment; problem behaviors, power struggles, poor academic performance, and attachment regulating behaviors mystify parents. The struggle to bring thoughts and feelings into coherence can be a lifelong task for adopted children. It doesn’t have to be this way.

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      Thanks for sharing your insight. Very relevant for sure.

      • Robert Hafetz

        Understanding the process is the key to inspire healing to change the wiring in the brain that holds the trauma memory of primal maternal loss. Preverbal trauma memory can be modified only by experiential interventions. That means words wont work but experiences that sharply contradict the memory(abandonment) with a secure attachment experience, in that moment(3-4hours) after the acting out or problem behavior. Hugs work really well, eye contact touch, being present all create experiences of attachment.

  • Robert Hafetz

    Why cognitive interventions and verbal counseling dont work with adoptees. A memory of the loss of the primal mother is recorded in the infant’s limbic system. “Neurobiologists have established that the brains limbic system stores and controls the activation of all schemas involving intense emotions of distress, such as fear and anger, along with the knowledge of how to be safe and self-protective. (Pansskepp, J., 1998). The amygdala compares current perceptions to these attachment related implicit memories triggering a self-protective response. This is why adoptees may react with anxiety to attachment. At the same time they crave attachment and the need to feel connected. “Due to the entirely nonverbal nature of the limbic brain, experiential rather then cognitive methods are required for successfully engaging and changing its schemas.” (Ecker, B., 2011). “A dynamic neural process now known as reconsolidation can actually unlock the synapses maintaining implicit emotional learnings” (Nader, K., et al. 2000). When the child is experiencing trauma memories (missbehaving) thats the time to create an experience of secure attachment. Hug, eye contact, touch, being present and accepting, calm vocal tone will inspire healing. This is the time most parents use some form of redirection which will result in an escalation and a power struggle. Parents must validate, align with the child and together reach the goal. The missbehavior is not the problem its the childs solution to the problem.

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