Why Traditional Parenting Logic Doesn’t Work With Traumatized Kids

Traditional parenting logic is all about rewards and consequences.  Good parents use these methods with their children all the time with excellent results.  But, what happens when good people are raising a child that has a significant history of trauma?  I’m talking about children who were abused or neglected, adopted from foster care (after multiple placements) or who are dealing with some sort of insecure attachment.  Well, everything gets turned upside down.

Traditional Parenting Logic:  IF this THEN That

What I mean by traditional parenting logic is that you usually enforce rules by saying if (this) then (that)

Examples:

IF you do not finish your dinner, THEN you can not have dessert

IF you do all of your homework, THEN you can go play video games.

IF you break a rule, THEN you go to time-out.

Makes sense, right?

If used consistently with a child that has secure attachment, this type of parenting works beautifully.  Children learn very early on that the parent “does what they say and says what they mean.”  These parents can be relied upon and can be fair and nurturing.  The children become independent and able to follow the rules that are given.  They ask questions like

IF I finish my homework, CAN I go play outside?

IF I promise to clean up, CAN I paint today?

IF I apologize, CAN I make this right?

How Kids With Trauma History Respond

The difference with kids who have been through trauma or who have unhealthy attachment experiences (where caregivers did not meet their needs well enough and consistently enough OR with caregivers who were harmful/scary/threatening) is that

  1. They don’t care about consequences.

    They have been hit or hurt before.  They have gone to bed hungry. They have been the only one without the newest gadget.  They have learned how to numb themselves out so that they don’t feel the consequences.

    So, they act like they don’t care.  They’re tough (on the outside) and can take whatever you dish out.

    And least that’s how they act. They do, in fact, care…but are not able to show that level of vulnerability to let you know how much they care.

  2. Rewards are not motivating to them.

    They don’t think they deserve the rewards. Or, they don’t believe that you will actually follow through with providing them.  Or, they have zero confidence in their own ability to do whatever it is that you are asking so that they can earn the reward.

    And it’s easier to not try at all then it is to try and fail.

What You See With Traditional Logic

So, what you end up with is a scenario like this:

Parent: IF you eat all your dinner, THEN you can have dessert.

Child:  I don’t want dessert. And I’m not eating this.

Parent:  Fine, if you don’t eat all of your dinner, then you can’t watch TV.

Child: I hate you.  You’re so mean.  Flips plate off table.

What ensues is a power struggle in which the parent attempts to use rewards to motivate good behavior (which fails) and then switches to consequences to extinguish bad behaviors (which also fails).  And then the parent is frustrated because this method SHOULD work.  But it doesn’t.

Becoming Trauma-Informed

To resolve this power struggle dilemma, it is helpful for foster parents, adoptive parents, neighbors, teachers, and other caregivers to become trauma-informed.  Recognize that this is not willful disobedience and that it is really a response to a bad environment.

  • Read information from Bruce Perry or Daniel Siegel to become more knowledgeable about how the brain develops in response to trauma.
  • Acknowledge the feelings the child is having before addressing the behavior (you’re mad/disappointed/frustrated), and WHEN you feel that way, you can do this behavior instead.
  • Reduce power struggles by offering more choices and providing an opportunity for empowerment.
  • Don’t take it personally.  This pattern takes time to overcome.
  • Target alternative behaviors and teach children WHAT you want them to DO when a situation arises.
  • Practice in play.  Make learning and practicing these behaviors fun and silly whenever possible
  • Maintain your own calm.  Don’t let the negativity become contagious.  Model your own coping skills.
  • Provide opportunity for sensory experiences: you have to calm the stress response before you can talk about it, so give them something to do with their hands to calm down and then talk about it LATER

Final Thoughts

If you are in the position of raising a child that has a history of trauma or attachment related problems, this is not something to work on alone.  This situation often requires the assistance of a mental health provider that can work with the child individually and who can work with your family in a therapuetic setting to help manage these difficult behaviors.  And it takes time.

If you are in need of a therapist for your child, look for one that specializes in play therapy, attachment and trauma or other family therapy.  Find someone that you like and trust and get support.

About the Author Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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