It happened again, the meltdown over homework. But I don’tjust mean tears and whining, I mean a fit to end all fits. The screams pierceyour ears, things are being thrown, the book is being torn. The snack youoffered is now all over your shirt. It’s one thing when a three-year-old has ameltdown—it’s also to be expected. No one really bats an eye if you have toleave the full grocery cart in the aisle because your toddler can’t handle beingin public for the moment. But what if your kid is 9?
Parents start to notice somethings up. They’re well aware their9-year-old shouldn’t be having meltdowns over being asked to take a shower, yetthey are. They’re also lying, hoarding food, behind in school, can’t keepfriends, use manipulation to get their needs met, flip between “I love you” and“I hate you”, and once they spiral into that meltdown, there’s absolutely nogetting through to them. And despite the fact you follow-up with a conversationtime and time again about why lying isn’t okay, it continues to happen. Nothingseems to stick.
A lot of times, that’s when parents seek support from mentalhealth professionals, which might I add, is wonderful. If you think something’sup—ask. Because the sooner that kid can get the support they need, the better.
When I have parents share all of the behavioral concernswith me, I want to look at the bigger context of that child’s life. Oh, theywere born addicted to methylphenidate? Oh, they spent the first two and a halfyears with a mom who was addicted, homeless at times, unsafe, and also had amental health disorder? And at that point I know that all of the behavioralconcerns are symptoms of developmental trauma.
I love these kids. I really do. Fits and all. Because when Iwork with these kids, I see someone who wants to connect and feel safe, butthey have no idea how to make that happen. When you ask them why they flippedout over being asked to take out the trash, they really have no idea. Theydon’t like how they feel any more than you do. They’re typically aware theycan’t keep friends, but they don’t know why either. These kids are more proneto depression, anxiety, risk-taking behaviors, and substance abuse as they getolder. But when they get the support they need—they can thrive. BUT, “support”doesn’t just mean helping them change the behavior. We have to address thetrauma.
With increased stability, practicing skills, and havingparents try to respond in a different way, it helps, but the focus can’t justbe on the behaviors. The child will be able to maintain for a while, longenough to get to play video games after school, but sooner or later, somethingwill make them break. And parents—shocked by feeling like they’ve taken amillion steps backward, don’t know what happened.
A regulated brain often comes with an improvement inbehaviors, but an improvement in behaviors doesn’t necessarily mean the brainis regulated or that they child has suddenly switched from an insecure to asecure attachment style. Sometimes a change in behavior means they’re beingcompliant. They don’t want to feel like they’re in trouble, or maybe theincentives you’re offering are something they really want, but compliance andincentives only work for so long, and those methods can come at a price.
Overly compliant children are sometimes so fearful of beingrejected if they mess up that they become perfectionistic and their valuedoesn’t depend on who they are but on how well they do. And kids raised onincentives can struggle with the internal motivation as they need as they getolder.
What I want parents to understand is that the behaviors area symptom—if you treat the trauma, you’ll treat the behaviors, but treatingbehaviors is not the same thing as treating trauma.
While we have other blogs regarding trauma, and there aremore to come, I don’t want to leave you without any tools to address the traumayour child experienced. Here’s a quick bullet point list of some things you cando:
- Co-regulate: this bonds child to parent, so ifyour child experience attachment trauma, this is vital. Think about all of thebonding interactions you have with a baby: rocking, gazing, cooing (prosody andusing your voice to comfort), bear hugs (think of swaddling) or weightedblankets), touch, the sucking motion (Think of a binky. Peppermints, or even a waterbottle with a straw), etc.
- Regulate before trying to use reason or trying totalk through what happened.
- Be as predictable as possible with your child’sschedule: unexpected changes can trigger a fear response.
- Use re-dos rather than consequences/punishments:did your child speak to you with a disrespectful tone? Very calmly and maybe evenplayfully or lightly, ask him or her to try again “with respect”. (This oneonly works pre-meltdown). Relying on consequences and punishments can make negativebehaviors feel like a scary thing. And fear perpetuates the lying/manipulation/meltdownissue.
- Keep in mind, discipline means “to teach”. You’reteaching your child what is appropriate is important and that doesn’t alwayslook like a punishment.
punishmentconsequence needs to fitthe crime: I’m not saying consequences aren’t a part of discipline, but itneeds to match the crime. Did your daughter ride her bike again without a helmet?Then for 2-weeks, she has to do a safety check with mom or dad before leavingthe house. Did she have a meltdown at school and throw a book at her teacher?Then she needs to write an apology note to her teacher. Social development andrelationships are so important to kids with early trauma, so I never likeconsequences that affect their relationships if it can be avoided. That mightmean still letting your son go to the sleepover even though he punched hisbrother (the consequence focuses on how he repairs what happened with hisbrother). Or here’s another for instance: your teen has been experimenting withdrugs with a certain peer group. You want to lock them in their room and keepthem away from everyone, but what if you let him go on the Florida trip withschool because you know the negative peers won’t be there, but the positive peerswill be. You’re not rewarding bad behavior by letting him go—positive relationshipsare a protective factor against risk taking behavior. Discipline should feelsafe and always have their best interest in mind.
- Provide a safe-space: some kids feel safer whenthey feel closed in—that’s why a lot of kids will hide in closets or under thebed when they become stressed. Try setting up a tent and making it cozy forwhen they’re getting worked up.
- Use “time-ins”. Instead of giving time outs andsending your child away, try a time in. That’s when they need to be next to youfor however long. When kids have attachment trauma, being sent away can be ascary and hurtful thing.
- Go to counseling: kids need to process what happenedto them. That may be through play, art, EMDR, equine therapy, music therapy, andmore. Find someone you trust to work with your child (and someone your childconnects with).
- Lastly, I’m a big advocate for neurofeedback forthose who have experienced early life trauma. From an early age that person (childor adult) learned how to be on the edge of fight, flight, and freeze. So often,the behaviors we see in traumatized individuals are some how or other relatedto one of those fear responses. If you can help the brain regulate, you helpthe person experience the world, relationships, and themselves and still feelsafe. And that, my friends, is a game changer.
*The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).