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Reframing Your Child's Behavioral Problem: The Impact of Experiences on Children's Mental Health

May 10, 2022
Trauma Treatment

Why do we need to ask, “What has happened to your child?” AND “What has happened to you?” Because everyone’s experiences matter. 

Children’s Experiences Matter

Trauma-focused care has become popular over the past few years, significantly changing how we understand mental health. Specifically, trauma-informed care has focused on how past experiences explain all behavior, not just the "bad" behaviors. The issue that this has created is that sometimes people don’t feel like their child has experienced a “trauma,” but are still frustrated with their bad behaviors. Below are some common traumas as well as some other childhood stressors that can affect a young child in similar ways. These common stressors are often overlooked but can be just as impactful to a young child’s development.

Common Adverse Experiences/Trauma:

  • Violence (family, community)
  • Abuse (physical, sexual, neglect)
  • Growing up in a family with mental health/substance abuse problems
  • Car accidents
  • House fires

Other Common Childhood Stressors:

  • Separation from parent (even for a date night)
  • Starting daycare/school
  • Strict parenting
  • Relationship issues with parent; parent doesn’t understand child
  • COVID reactions
  • Medical procedures
  • Moving

Some of these “Other Common Childhood Stressors” may not seem like a big deal to adults and are often minimized. Parents may feel like children should just deal with the changes and move on. What may seem minor to us as adults can produce a big reaction in a child.

Parent Experiences Matter

In addition to being curious about what experiences the child has had in their life, we are even more interested in what experiences that the parent has had. Why does that matter? Parents bring all their experiences into their relationship with their child. It impacts how they interact with them and respond to them. It also impacts how the child will react and respond. Parents are their child’s greatest teachers.  They teach by modeling. When a parent is responding to stress by yelling or throwing things, we should expect the same thing from the child. Our children depend on us to be their guides.

A Tip for Parents

Self-reflection as a parent is the best way to improve your child’s behaviors. Ask yourself these questions first before reacting to your child’s behavior. Understanding how you were raised can provide insight into why you respond to your child in the way you do.

  1. How did your parents express emotions?
  2. Who did you play with when you were young? What did that play look like?
  3. Think about your first memory of feeling nurtured and loved. How can you make a memory like that with your child?
  4. Think about your first memory of feeling afraid. How can you protect your child from those fears?
  5. Reflect on how your parents interacted with you. What interactions are like how you interact with your kids? What are different?
  6. What would you like to change about how you parent or how you interact with your child?

Sometimes parents think that when they receive behavioral health therapy that they will drop their child off to talk with a therapist and then, at pick up, will find them listening, focusing, and being generally “fixed.”   

We joke with our parents saying “we do not have a magic wand” that will make your child behave in a different way, but we do have the knowledge and training to help you look at yourself, as well as your and your child’s past experiences. We can then begin to co-create an explanation as to how those experiences have impacted your child. 

Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Early Childhood Mental Health Treatment Program specializes in treating children ages 0 to 6. We can assist you in finding a provider who will work with you to enhance the relationship between you and your child. Please call (614) 355-8080 for information on this and other Big Lots Behavioral Health Services programs.

For additional information related to services and resources in response to family violence, please call (614) 722-8200 or visit The Center for Family Safety and Healing.

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Katrina Ruege
Katrina Ruege, LPCC-S

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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.