Am I Causing My Child’s Behavior To Escalate?

We are immersed in the day in and day out task of parenting our children. Often this leaves us emotionally spent. It’s easy to let our emotions fly out of control when our children are dis-regulated. But is this causing more damage than we realize?

Depressed woman crying sitting on sofa

My son spent the entire car ride antagonizing his younger brothers and asking me the same questions over and over. Three long hours on the way to grandma and grandpa’s house for Thanksgiving. Three hours of giving the same answers to the same questions I’d given countless times before. Three hours of listening to obsessive talk over and over. Three hours of wishing he’d just go to sleep. Three…long…hours.

I’ll be honest here: I knew this was all part of his disorder. I knew the repetition, the belligerence, the obsessiveness was all part of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Logically speaking I could have reminded myself of this, but I was done. More than done. I had had all I could take and now I was about to boil over.

We stepped into my in-laws condominium and the berating of his younger siblings continued. It was the look on their faces that pushed me over the edge. I couldn’t take them being victimized one more second so I lost it. And when I say lost it, I mean lost it! My emotions spilled over like a bathtub overflowing. Everything Karyn Purvis taught me about positive connection flew right out the window.

I yelled…he escalated.

I made demands…and he escalated.

I matched tone with him…and he escalated. And escalated, and escalated, and escalated!

Happy freaking Thanksgiving to all and to all a good night! Our night ended with him cowering in a corner on the front porch in the freezing cold, and me quietly apologizing, begging for his forgiveness, and desperately trying to salvage any ounce of the night I could.

This was my fault. My inability to control my emotions caused this to reach the point it had reached. I felt guilty because I knew better. I knew that my response, my emotions, my attitude was the thermostat of this situation. But in the moment, I lost it. I was so used to dealing with the meltdowns that I was on a hair-pin trigger.

An All-To-Familiar Story.

Those of us who are parenting children from difficult places have been there. We’ve all stood in that place of high emotion, ready to explode as we deal with 3-hour long tantrums, or watch our child victimize their siblings. Perhaps this wasn’t what we thought we were signing up for when we adopted in the first place and we were suddenly left trying to figure out how to parent this child successfully. Maybe we knew our children came from trauma, but we discounted the reality, or honestly believed we could love them through this.

But we soon discovered their trauma was far beyond anything we could control or manage. Our entire life changed because we were suddenly dealing with a child we desperately loved, but battled constantly. Out of our exhaustion, and bewilderment, we slowly lost our grip on our own emotions until our default also became explosions.

If you’re anything like me, you look at your situation and realize this isn’t working. Not even close to working, in fact. You may even recognize that your emotions have surpassed your child’s. Ever been there? The tantrum is long over but you’re still dis-regulated even if your child is now calm. Maybe your child even becomes the consoler. That’s embarrassing to admit.

Don’t beat yourself up. You and I are human after all. We make mistakes. We’re emotional beings. We have all of these feels inside of us that cause our emotions to spill over. As Wreck-It-Ralph says, “Our passion bubble is near the surface.” Plus, we’re fighters. We fight for our children, even if we find ourselves fighting with them most of the time. There wasn’t a checkbox on the application that said “I promise not to F all of this up.” Nope. Most of us had to figure all of this out on our own. Totally understandable.

But, we must arrive at a place of recognition. A place where we see the forest for the trees and begin to do things different. For the sake of our children, but also us.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, then, what should we do? If our heightened emotion can directly impact the escalation of our children’s emotions, what should we do differently? Here are 2 thoughts…

  1. Remember. In the heat of the moment, it’s really hard to see the forest for the trees with your child. It’s hard to remember the places they’ve come from. It’s equally hard to remember that they aren’t necessarily trying to manipulate, or dominate, or dictate. They’re trying to articulate a need that they can’t put into words. They’re fighting for control because the deep loss imbedded in them is screaming to be heard. They’re not a bad kid behaving badly. They’re a traumatized kid, speaking and behaving out of their trauma. Remember this will help you see your child in a different light.
  2. Control your environment. This is two-fold. First and foremost, you’ve got to maintain control of your emotions. Regardless of what your child is doing, or saying, you have to keep you under control. This is really, really, REALLY hard to do when the heat is on, and they’re out of control. Remind yourself of the origin of their behavior. Remember what I just shared in number 1. Keep the end-result in perspective. You want peace with your child. Make that your target. The second part of controlling your environment has to do with the actual environment. If your child has a disorder such as FASD, they need structure. Routine is king. As our good friend, Dr. Ira Chasnoff says, “Repeat, repeat, repeat!” If you live in chaos, your child will react to chaos. Figure this out and you may see a very different result with your child.

This is work in progress my friend. This may not have been what we signed up for, but we are signed up for this, and now we have to live in our new normal. We have this great responsibility to love and lead these children we’ve been blessed with. That’s our role. Even when your emotions are out of control and thus, your children are escalated, we know how much you love them. No one here doubts that. I promise. But, it’s time to make some changes so your family can arrive at the healthiest place possible.


Question: Have you struggled with keeping your emotions in check? Have you caused your child to escalate by your reaction or tone? You’re not alone. Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Jennifer Brown

    This is where my husband and I are at. We are emotionally spent – exhausted!! One child has a diagnosis, one appears to have minor issues and the third has no diagnosis, but something definitely is going on there. When we have reached our max on patience we end up matching our emotions with theirs. We feel like we are on a vicious hamster wheel that never stops. We need to do something different before we (the parents) go crazy! I do have to say we are starting in home counseling so maybe this will help everyone!! Thanks for the article.

    • Love that you are all doing in home counseling! Sounds like a great thing!

  • Sonya de Leeuw

    Oh my. Oh my. This is sooo true!! Every time after the aftermath I realize and know I should have done that better/differently… But when those buttons are pushed, I’m stressed and the LAST thing I need is mom mom mom mom listen look see…aaaaagh!! Thank you for this reminder to remember!!! My head and heart need to connect and I need to breathe!!! If I ever get a tattoo it will say “just breathe!!” 😉. Thank you too for your book which spoke directly to my family and our situation and thank you for all your help and honesty in your posts! It really is good to know we are not alone! -adoptive mom with son who has a list of ABC diagnosis…FASD,RAD, DMDD, ODD,OCD, ADHD,…hugs to y’all!!

  • JR

    This is sooooo familiar. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not crazy, and that this stuff really does happen, and that I’m not alone. I practice staying calm daily, but sometimes the human side of me still comes out. Hugs to all in this life situation. We’ve gotta stick together!

  • Sue Bird

    Thanks for this. Also important is for us parents to get away for breaks regularly, and to have friends/family nearby who really love our kids and who support us unconditionally (even when we’ve lost it and feel so guilty). Recently I’ve had some counselling just for me, and received some healing, through prayer and through realising how my daughter was triggering my own deep hurts. Since then, I’ve somehow (mostly) had more patience, compassion, and ability to stay calm even when she starts yelling.