As relative, foster, or adoptive parents, you know that trauma creates emotional wounds that make it hard for kids to cope. You know that difficult behaviors, like meltdowns, lying, stealing, or aggression, are the “language” kids use to express their trauma. “Behavior is a communication of the internal state. When we are stressed, we regress,” says Bryan Post of the Post Institute.
Kids communicate with words, too, of course. Whether it’s a thoughtful question about why they can’t live with their birth parents or a blunt statement about how unhappy they are, we may struggle with these difficult conversations. By definition, these talks are going to be stressful. We know that stress puts kids in the fight, flight, or freeze mode when they have had trauma. And when kids escalate, we may find ourselves becoming a bit emotionally dysregulated as well.
Here are some ideas of what not to do when having these difficult conversations with kids:
- Becoming anxious or agitated yourself
- Trying to distract them from their painful emotions
- Telling them it’s not that bad, or they don’t really have any reason to feel that way
- Pointing out the things they should be grateful for
- Giving advice
Instead, we want to help the child in our care know that their feelings are valid and that they are entitled to those feelings, no matter what they are. A safe, affirming connection is everything in this moment. To create this safe connection, we need to put aside teaching, put aside guiding, and put aside any values connected to what the child is saying. These are the moments to listen, be present, and try to feel what the child is feeling. The child should be talking more than you are. The hurt they feel, or the numbness, or the anger – it’s your role to affirm those feelings. At the same time, you want to help them avoid becoming overwhelmed or flooded by those emotions. There are many ways to do that. (see sidebar)
When trauma happens to children, it’s not just what happened to them, but what they learned from what happened to them. In essence, children from trauma learn that the world isn’t safe. Whether an infant, a toddler, or an older child, they perceive the world as dangerous and even life-threatening. You can help a child reframe their perception of their world when you grow that safe connection with the child in your care. What does safety look like? It means your responses to the child are:
- Consistent and predictable
- Absent any alarm or shock in response to what a child says or does
- Emotionally regulated
You are the safety, in essence. You are the child’s connection with the world, and your calm, caring empathy provides a soft landing for those big emotions.
Your attention is part of this equation, too. When children are talking, playing, and even acting out, they want to be seen. How do you see a child, you might ask? You delight in them; you engage with them; you make the child feel like the center of your
world at that moment. These many little moments adding up is how you build a connection that allows healing to begin.
You might be wondering, “how can I ‘delight in a child’ when that child is expressing the pain around why they are in our care?” Of course, we can’t erase whatever it was that brought the children into our care. But we can empathize and walk with them through their pain. We can help them to avoid feeling powerless.
With your connecting presence, kids will begin to understand there’s nothing so wrong, so shameful, so painful, that they can’t bring that thing out and look at it. The world may still seem scary, but the bad feelings that go with those experiences can be honored and managed. This is the path to healing.
In stressful conversations, we as parents can model calmness and emotional regulation. Sometimes you need more than modeling, though. Explore these emotional regulation tips for parents with kids who are emotionally distraught:
Affirm their feelings by asking them a question or two about their feelings.
Your nonverbal communication is essential – show interest and empathy with your posture, facial expressions, and openness.
Avoid jumping into advice-giving.
Also, try any one or more of the following: