700 Children's Blog

Negative Behavior as a Form of Communication: How to Be a Trauma-Informed Parent

Aug 22, 2019
Mother and son hugging

Every child experiences stress. As adults, it’s sometimes hard to recognize because adult stress seems much more weighted – finances, work, marriage. But, it’s important to understand children’s stress can become toxic if it’s not acknowledged and addressed.

Trauma-informed parenting might sound like something that’s only necessary for children with extreme behavioral problems, but being trauma-informed can help every parent and caregiver feel more equipped to respond to children’s behaviors.

Research about trauma has shown us that all behavior is communication. We realize now that many “bad behaviors” are actually natural survival responses that a traumatized child develops over time to adapt to their environment.

A natural response may be to ask, “What’s wrong with that child?” when we see problematic behavior. Instead, trauma-informed means asking, “What may have happened to that child that has caused this behavior?”

Recognizing Stress in Children

We all have a stress response system – you’ve probably heard of flight, fight or freeze. The first step to being a trauma-informed caregiver is to recognize how stress feels in your own self, and then notice what it looks like for your child. Stress responses can feel and look like:

  • Face getting hot or red
  • Heart racing
  • Feeling unable to catch your breath
  • Shutting down, withdrawing
  • Butterflies in your stomach
  • Hands clenching into fists

When children have experienced trauma, their bodies, brains, and nervous systems adapt in an effort to protect them. Stress can become toxic and chronic when this stress response system is activated over and over without any buffering or feelings of safety for a child. A child may experience:

  • Frequent stomach aches or headaches
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Difficulty learning in a classroom environment
  • Impaired memory
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling unsafe
  • Unexplained outbursts
  • Depression or anxiety

Trauma-informed Response to Stress or “Bad Behavior”

The natural response to a child’s outburst, tantrum, or other behavior is to immediately reprimand and address the wrong-doing, followed by a calm conversation. But a trauma-informed approach recommends the opposite.

In a moment of fight-flight-or-freeze, a child’s access to the rational, logical self-control part of the brain is limited. We want to take a break to calm down first, for both the child and the caregiver. Here are steps for creating a calm conversation:

  1. Create a calm station in your home where a child can bring themselves back down to a state of regulation. This station could include play dough, calming bottles and visual cards about how to breathe to stay calm.
  2. Once the child and you are both calm, it’s a good time to talk about the problem behavior. Express your concerns with the behavior, connecting it to safety or health when possible.
  3. Allow your child to openly express their emotions – good and bad. In this step, acknowledge what your child is feeling by repeating back what they’ve shared with you and letting them know it’s okay.

Trauma-Informed Home

The most important thing you can do is to help your child feel safe. Routines can help to reassure children, especially if they are struggling with change. Try to have regular meal times, bed times, naps and play times.

Ask your child who they feel comfortable talking to if they are worried or concerned about themselves or someone else. A helpful and fun tool to use with your child is Lauren’s Kids Trusted Triangle worksheet, which helps children name three “grown up buddies” that make them feel safe.

Praise your child with specific feedback that highlights them as unique individuals. This helps build self-esteem and self-efficacy, essential steps for creating self-regulation skills. Remind them that they are safe, loved, and important.

As caregivers, we can’t wrap our children in a bubble and guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen to them – but we can make sure that they know they’re not alone and they have your love no matter what happens. That’s really what it means to be a trauma-informed parent.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)

NCTSN seeks to raise the standard of care and increase access to services for traumatized children and their families. Their site has courses, tip sheets, and other resources.

For more information about The Center for Family Safety and Healing, click here.

Featured Expert

Lynn Rosenthal
Lynn Rosenthal
The Center for Family Safety and Healing

Lynn Rosenthal is the president of The Center for Family Safety and Healing (TCFSH), which takes an integrated team approach to breaking the cycle of family violence and child abuse.

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700 Children’s features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.