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How family support professionals can encourage trauma-responsive parenting  

A youth interacts with a caregiver.

Often, supporting adoptive, foster, and kinship families involves introducing them to a new parenting style. As a family support professional, you may need to steer parents away from a more traditional (and consequence-based) approach and instead guide them toward trauma-responsive parenting.  

Children and youth who have experienced trauma respond better to parenting that acknowledges and addresses the life-long impacts of that trauma. But it can be hard for some families to abandon what they know for a new approach.  

Below, we offer strategies for helping families to both understand and embrace trauma-responsive parenting.  

Understand what trauma-responsive parenting means

Trauma-responsive parenting means 

  • Understanding the neurobehavioral aspect of behavior challenges 
  • Focusing on the relationship 
  • Acknowledging the child’s developmental age and how that may vary in different areas of the youths’ lives 
  • Avoiding shame or blame 

Talk about the impact of trauma and loss as brain injury 

Be specific when discussing trauma. Parents need to understand that ongoing trauma changes developing brains. Using terms like “brain injury” or “invisible disability” can help parents recognize developmental trauma as something akin to a physical injury, where behaviors are the result of a physical condition rather than a choice.  

By comparing children or youth with this type of brain injury to those with a noticeable physical injury (such as blindness or paralysis), parents might more quickly adjust their expectations and support systems.  

Search for the “lightbulb” moment 

Everyone absorbs information differently. Look for ways to help parents have “lightbulb” moments, where they truly understand trauma’s impact on their child’s brain and thus how they function.

Options for achieving these “aha” instances might include  

Teach them to connect first 

Emphasize the importance of building a relationship.  

Karyn Purvis, co-creator of Trust-Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI®), explains in this introductory video (3 minutes), “As we connect to this child, as we build safety, we actually change brain chemistry [and] the wiring of the brain.”  

Remind parents that a great way to connect is to do something fun together. Doing activities as a whole family or as a parent-child duo strengthens relationships, especially when the activity is one the child enjoys.  

Explain how connection can serve as correction. For example, introduce the idea of time-in rather than timeout. If the child hasn’t made their bed or put clothes away, parents and children can work on fixing that together. Or the parent can just shut the bedroom door and spend time with the child and worry about cleaning later.  

Too often, traditional parenting prioritizes consequences, and parents can get so mired in corrections that they forget to have fun with their child. 

Suggest rhythmic activities 

In this PDF article, “The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics: An Interview,” Dr. Bruce Perry recommends activities that heal trauma by stimulating the lower portion of the brain, saying, “[To] change any neural network in the brain, we need to provide … patterned repetitive rhythmic somatosensory activity. Music, dance, drumming, grooming a horse, jumping on a trampoline, swinging, massage, and a host of other everyday activities can be structured to help do this.” 

Encourage parents to find rhythmic activities—specifically, those the child or youth enjoys, as well as some that can be done together to further strengthen their relationship.  

Help them consider developmental age, rather than chronological age 

Children with complex trauma often have a gap between their chronological and developmental ages, with studies showing that while the average chronological age of participants with trauma was nearly 10 years, their average developmental age was closer to that of 4.5 years. 

Trauma (including that of prenatal alcohol exposure) follows no template, instead affecting development differently across domains. For example, a child or youth with trauma might excel in expressing themselves verbally while also being emotionally immature and performing poorly at school. And each child or youth who has experienced trauma may be affected differently.  

You can work with parents to identify and document where their child or youth functions in the various developmental domains, including the following:  

  • Physical—What percentile are they in for height? How are their gross and fine motor skills? 
  • Social/emotional—What age children do they most like to play with? What games do they like? How do they respond when excited or upset? 
  • Language—How well do they understand what’s being said to them? How do they express themselves and communicate their wants and needs? 
  • Cognitive—How are they testing in school? Are they performing at grade level? Do they have diagnosed delays? 

Once parents better understand the child’s developmental age, they can better provide appropriate guidance, comfort, boundaries, and support. Children and youth deserve solutions that meet them where they are rather than where peers of a similar age happen to be.  

Acknowledge that this change is hard 

Learning anything new—especially when it involves unlearning something as deeply ingrained as consequence-based parenting—can be difficult and requires time, patience, and lots of practice.  

Some parents may fight against trauma-responsive parenting, as it was not how they were raised. Or they might anticipate judgement from friends and neighbors and worry they will be seen as permitting bad behavior or coddling a disruptive child or youth. Listen to and empathize with these frustrations, as you give them the space needed to listen and learn.  

For some, it may help to suggest trying trauma-responsive parenting on a trial basis. Ask if their traditional response is providing the desired outcome. It likely isn’t, as they’re coming to you for assistance, so suggest that it might be a good time to try something new. Ask them to try trauma-responsive techniques for a set time period (such as three or six months) and compare those results to what they’re currently seeing.  

Encourage parents to become behavior detectives 

When parents correct behavior rather than addressing the trauma behind it, it’s akin to treating a broken leg by telling the patient to just not limp. Instead, encourage parents to dig deeper to understand why their child or youth is acting a certain way, so they can address the cause rather than a symptom. 

 In her blog post “Why We Misunderstand Traumatized Children’s Behavioral Challenges and How We Can Do Better,” Dr. Mona Delahooke says, “We fail these children when we simply target their behaviors, which are only the tip of the iceberg. Instead, we need to examine what is causing the behaviors. Only then can we properly address the pain and suffering that fuel the behavior.”  

Parents can serve as behavior detectives by investigating what is causing anxiety or stress and triggering a challenging behavior. Suggest they keep a log of every time their child or youth rages, has a meltdown, or shuts down emotionally, noting what happened in the hours or even days before. Later, once the child has fully calmed down, they can even ask the child if they have insights about the event. Over time, parents can often find out how to avoid or reduce the meltdowns by making changes that address the source of the anxiety or upset. 

Provide specific tips for addressing some of the most challenging behaviors 

Parents do best when provided specific strategies for addressing the behaviors they find most challenging. Without tools they can actually use, parents may get frustrated and give up on trauma-responsive parenting.  

  • Lying—Help parents to understand the difference between confabulation and lying. Confabulation is when the brain fills in gaps and is especially common when the child or youth is anxious. If a child or youth is lying, recommend parents focus on the reason for the lie rather than the lie itself. Perhaps they are scared of getting in trouble, which may have had serious consequences in the past. Consider the Discussion Guide: Lying, Confabulation, and Distorted Thinking when helping parents respond to lying.   
  • Manipulation—Karyn Purvis reminds us, “For the child from the hard place, manipulation may have become the way they believed they survived.” In her YouTube video How Do I Handle Manipulation and Control (7 minutes), Purvis offers tips to share with parents, including offering appropriate levels of control and partnering with youth to identify and meet needs.  
  • Meltdowns—Encourage parents to focus on safety rather than embarrassment or judgement. Recommend distraction when the child first starts to lose it. (“Did you see that funny dog outside?” or “Look at this silly video of cute goats.”) Reasoning mid-meltdown doesn’t work, as the child can’t access their brain’s reasoning center then. Parents don’t need to talk in that moment, other than to simply ask the child what they need or what the parent can do. Afterward, log the strategies that helped to use for future meltdowns.  

Help them let go of expectations and be flexible  

A key to trauma-responsive parenting is realistic expectations and taking life as is, and that means parents will likely be the ones making changes rather than the child or youth. 

In Expanding Your Parenting Paradigm, Heather Forbes explains, “Trauma is very unpredictable, so our kids become very unpredictable. You may get up in the morning and expect that things are going to happen in A, B, C order, and all of sudden you realize, oops, that’s not happening…. But if your child is going off on X, Y, and Z, you’ve got to jump over to X, Y, Z.”  

Remind them to celebrate small successes 

When parents adjust expectations, they can focus on actual successes instead. These can be as simple as getting out the door for school on time without a meltdown. Or raising that F in math class to a C. Encourage parents to mentally note these successes, as they demonstrate that trauma-responsive parenting works, which encourages them to stick with it!  

Remind them to celebrate with their children, too! It’s important to emphasize what the child or youth is doing right, especially if their past involved a lot of correction. Additionally, shared celebration positively reinforces wanted behavior and strengthens the parent-child relationship.  

Connect them with other parents who are using trauma-responsive parenting 

A great way to help parents learn and succeed with trauma-responsive parenting is to connect them with other parents who have already incorporated the techniques. Refer parents to a support group, or connect them with an experienced foster, adoptive, or kinship parent who can serve as a mentor or coach. This expands the parents’ support system, while helping them better understand complex trauma and how to parent children affected by it.  

Allow them to grieve and to help their children grieve 

It’s painful to recognize that you and your child will face more difficulties than others because of a brain injury that has no quick fix. Acknowledge the heartbreak and grief around this, and give them permission to feel their feelings.  

You may also need to help parents navigate and support their child’s grief. A child who can’t do everything their peers can suffers their own losses, and openly communicating about those losses can help the child grieve, too.  

Advise them not to take behaviors personally 

In this YouTube video Advice for Struggling Caregivers (3.5 minutes), Laura Phipps recommends encouraging parents to adopt the mantra that “behavior expresses a need.” “Many challenging behaviors feel very personal. They feel like it’s something the child is doing to you,” she says. “It can be very hard to separate out in those moments that what they are doing is not who they are.” As professionals, we can help parents do this hard work of separating the behavior from the parent-child relationship. 

Review useful resources with them 

Share resources, and discuss them together. These conversations reinforce learning and can help maintain the parents’ motivation. Encourage them to share the tips they found most useful with others supporting their child (teachers, extended family, etc.)  

In addition to your favorite resources, consider sharing these below:  

Extend grace 

Some parents feel guilt or shame after learning about trauma-responsive parenting for not understanding their child in the past. Help them release those feelings. Reassure them that they can’t help what they didn’t know. Remind them that what matters now is that they’re on the right path and you’re here to support them as they make this change.   

Learn more 

Many of these strategies are explored in the AdoptUSKids webinar Helping Parents Embrace Trauma-Responsive Parenting 

Mary Boo

Mary Boo