How To Parent A Child Who Constantly Fights For Survival.

Children who come from trauma are often in a fight for survival, even if they’ve been in your loving care for some time. It’s exhausting and unending at times. How do you successfully parent children who are in a fight while keeping your sanity?

Agressive boxing fight

On a mild Monday evening, around 6 pm, I wait expectedly in our kitchen, repeating a series of words over and over to myself. Today is the first day I’ve allowed my son to ride his bike home from football practice. On the stove is a pan of spaghetti and meatballs. In the oven, Texas Toast (our favorite). Dinner is ready. When he gets home, we’ll all sit down and eat. But I know what’s coming. I can hear his words in my head before he even walks through the door… “What’s for dinner?”

In any average household across the country, this question would be commonplace. It’s been asked a trillion times by a trillion teenagers since the beginning of time. Most parents wouldn’t bat an eye at it. But I do. In my household, with my children, “What’s for dinner” has a very deep significance. For my son, it’s a fight. He’s fighting a battle that originates from a memory that is fuzzy and distant, but real. Before he came to live with us, more than a decade ago, he was malnourished and living in a homeless shelter. “What’s for dinner,” is a statement uttered from deep trauma, and perpetual fear. Fear that he is going to starve…fear that he won’t be filled up…fear that he’ll be forced to dwell without a common need.

Often, the fight escalates into a real fight. If one of his siblings takes a portion of spaghetti he deems too big, he begins to yell at us, and blame us, claiming there won’t be enough for everyone else. This happens with more than just food. It happens with clothing, school supplies, deodorant, the blankets on his bed. Deep inside of him there’s a voice telling him, “You’re not going to have enough. Everyone is going to take everything. You need more. Fight, fight, fight.” It’s trauma speaking. It’s his past life whispering thoughts that fill him with fear.

Navigating The Difficult Road.

It’s exhausting isn’t it? If you’re in this trench, you’re probably nodding furiously right now. If you’re like us, you often throw your hands up and wonder… How do I parent a child who’s in a constant fight for survival even if I’ve given them everything they need?

We’ve asked this question over the years of many smart people with lots of great insight into parenting children from trauma. Here’s what we’ve learned to do…

  1. Acknowledge the origin. Remember where your child has come from. Remind yourself, even if it’s a whisper to yourself, that he or she began their life in a dark and desperate place. That’s why they fight. Often, they don’t even know they’re doing it. Once upon a time, they were starving. They saw their birth parents abuse drugs and neglect their child’s needs. They witnessed domestic violence. Maybe sexual assault. They were left in a crack house with nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and a dirty diaper sagging past their knees. Our children’s past is real and it is haunting. Remembering this can help us remain calm but also live with a sense of compassion when our child is fighting us over everything.
  2. Calm and firm. One of the most powerful tools in your parenting arsenal is the ability to remain calm and stay firm with your boundaries. When your child is melting down, freaking out, or locked in a hardcore fight with you, calm and firm wins. The times we’ve lost our cool, and battled back with our children, have only escalated the situation and made things worse (Honestly, this is a battle for us personally). But, we’ve learned that calm is a natural de-escalator. Partnering that with remaining firm on your expectations helps to create an environment of peace. It may take some time, and consistency, to arrive at this place, but you will over time.
  3. Repeat, repeat, repeat. One of our favorite medical experts, Dr. Ira Chasnoff, from NTI Upstream, coaches parents raising children from trauma, specifically FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), to repeat, repeat, repeat when it comes to routine, schedule, and navigating the tricky waters of trauma. Dinner is at this time every day… wake up time for school is at this time every day… after school we do the same thing. Over and over and over. Creating this type of routine and sticking to it will vastly change circumstances with your children. For all accounts, routine is a game-changer when you’re parenting children from trauma.
  4. Let it go. Sometimes you have to ignore the fight, especially if you’ve already calmly explained when dinner will be, or what’s next on the schedule. “I’ve already told you, dinner is in 30 minutes. We are having spaghetti and meatballs with frozen veggies.” If your child persists, let it go. If you’ve already given a clear answer to something they want, and they keep fighting you on it, let it go. Say nothing in response. Silence is golden.

For Your Own Sake.

This is hard. There’s no doubt about it. We often feel so frustrated and overwhelmed, we can hardly think straight. Sometimes, we feel like quitting altogether. Our child has pushed us to the brink of losing it. In those times, we seek out the voice and influence of others on this journey. In my post, earlier this week, I mentioned how I use the front porch of my home to vent, or listen to friends in need. Often, I’m calling my friend, who’s in the same trench, and pouring my frustration and weariness out to him.

We need this. Do the steps I just mentioned above work? Yes. But, let’s be real…sometimes the days of fighting with your child get the best of you and you need a voice of truth to speak into your life. You need an escape. As you and I work hard to love and lead children from traumatic places, we must ask ourselves this: Who am I leaning on to give me strength and encouragement on this difficult journey? We understand the struggle. It’s the very reason we created this blog.

Question: Are you parenting children from traumatic places? Have you experienced the fight? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Colleen Ncrew

    Our golden silence is OK. When it is obviously a question we will say no to and she is locked and loaded for fight we say ok. It comes all day. I am not going to school, ok. I am going to watch tv and you cant stop me, ok. I am going to break that new whatever just like I broke the other, ok. It is easier when we are not tired (rare lol) but we are getting better. These kids purposely ask questions or make statements to start something because they struggle with the self worth and if we deny them things like food or events it validates how they are feeling. I used to try and build them up and then one day HS gave me, meet them where they are in the moment. They live minute by minute so in the moment what do they need, is often just validation and OK does that. It empowers her especially to feel like she is in control. She does 90 percent of the time, turn it around, and get ready or do what was asked. Some days she may even keep saying I am not doing it while doing ok. Calm ok. Understanding that she lives in the moment had made life easier too. Food will always be a source of struggle, the sheriff of portions etc you mentioned. Our new one people who chew too loud and too fast. Hmmm ok. Last but not least to keep us sane we whisper every night before we sleep, The ring is on the finger and Jesus is on the throne. Trauma parenting self talk, even our grown kids say it now. Ok

    • Colleen, thanks so much for sharing your story. Your journey sounds much like ours. Hang in there. You are not alone!

  • Hillary Alexander

    I have learned to either stay silent or to use ok as well. My son will lately tell me “I am not going to eat.” In the past I would argue, try to coerce, and make it an issue. Lately I just stay calm, and 90% of the time he eats without a battle. He fights over sweets and junk food with who had more, who got to go out to eat and he didn’t do to an appointment or whatever. His main issue is being left out because of where his main source of trauma comes from.
    With school starting the battle to get ready will begin again, he fears missing out on what I might do while he is at school. If I meet up with friends, go grocery shopping or do anything beyond waiting at home for him it can cause meltdowns and refusal to leave. Mornings are a struggle for me to remain calm as I am not a morning person and going between 2 kids to get needs met. But I am working on that too.

    • Hillary, we understand the pre-school battles all to well. We’re in this trench with you. Hang in there.

  • Marissa

    My husband and I are approaching finalization with our 3 children (siblings) that moved in with us in March. They are 10, 11, and 12 with a history of trauma and abuse. We have no other children and some days it is just hard. They are sweet kids and really good, especially considering their background but when they get scared or frustrated they just explode all over the place. Our oldest fixates on getting dessert, which we don’t do every night. When they first moved in he would scream and cry every night. I ended up making a meal plan and marking the days we would have dessert, which calmed him. He still gets upset if they don’t get what he considers enough dessert but it is nothing like what it was before. Our middle child had the most trauma, especially with different foster parents, and she has very severe anxiety. She will get upset over things we consider to be very small and that we don’t see coming, such as the computer taking too long to log in so she can do homework. A previous foster mother would follow her around when she got upset, provoking her more. We calmly tell her to cool down in her room for a set amount of time (her therapist recommended 20 minutes) and while she yells and slams her door, after that time she has reset herself and usually acts like nothing happened. Our youngest was allowed to get away with a lot in foster homes, which has created a very negative dynamic with our oldest. He also is dissociated from his emotions because that how he survived in his birth home. We recently started him in a karate class that is teaching him respect and self-control, which seems to be working. While the past few months have been a struggle and at some points we have felt so defeated, these kids have made so much progress and we are looking forward to finalization in the next month or so.

    • Marissa, yes, yes and yes. The days are so hard at times. Your oldest son sounds like our oldest son. Hang in there. We know the pain you go through.

  • Monica Hall

    Did you ever find an incredible solution to a problem and you just knew it had to be God helping? I had one of those moments a few months back and because it has worked so incredibly well, I want to share.
    We have 4 bio children and 4 children who are adopted. The four adopted kids come from different families, different backgrounds – but all suffer from severe trauma. As we were leaving the movie theater (a rare and super fun treat) my light-bulb moment happened. I told the kids the movie was sometimes sad, sometimes funny and sometimes there were parts that were scary and sad. They all agreed. I explained no matter how we remembered it, the movie was over. Even if we wanted to go back the doors were closed to us and the movie was now just part of our past. I told them that is what it is like with them. They were in an old movie. It really happened but now it was over. Even if we wanted to, we can’t go back because it is over. Lights off, door locked – not one part of that move was still playing. They responded so positively. it was amazing! Then I told them they were now starring in a new movie – my movie and it was playing right now. They loved that! So now, when something triggers them and they are acting up I simply ask what movie they are in. It is that quick. Sometimes they smile and say, “Yours!” other times they will pout or cry but it still snaps them out of it fairly quickly. It has been so helpful for us. I pray it helps you just as much! <3

    • Monica, I love this. Thanks for sharing. 😉

    • Colleen Ncrew

      This is great, we have often reminded that the orphanage was closed after we left the country and that the building, people and name are all gone. It is ironic that see thinks that the one place we will send them back to if we can’t handle parenting is the place that roots their trauma. I guess because it is familiar but Monica do your kids ever want to go back to the hard place and actually think you can send them back?

      • Monica Hall

        Yes. It is their greatest struggle. Their greatest fear. 🙁

  • Cindy McQuay

    How do I find help for FASD, 18 yo son finally diagnosed but still little knowledge from our Drs.