Addressing behaviors is not the same thing as treating trauma

It happened again, the meltdown over homework. But I don’t just mean tears and whining, I mean a fit to end all fits. The screams pierce your ears, things are being thrown, the book is being torn. The snack you offered is now all over your shirt. It’s one thing when a three-year-old has a meltdown—it’s also to be expected. No one really bats an eye if you have to leave the full grocery cart in the aisle because your toddler can’t handle being in public for the moment. But what if your kid is 9?

Parents start to notice somethings up. They’re well aware their 9-year-old shouldn’t be having meltdowns over being asked to take a shower, yet they are. They’re also lying, hoarding food, behind in school, can’t keep friends, 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 no getting through to them. And despite the fact you follow-up with a conversation time and time again about why lying isn’t okay, it continues to happen. Nothing seems to stick.

A lot of times, that’s when parents seek support from mental health professionals, which might I add, is wonderful. If you think something’s up—ask. Because the sooner that kid can get the support they need, the better.

When I have parents share all of the behavioral concerns with me, I want to look at the bigger context of that child’s life. Oh, they were born addicted to methylphenidate? Oh, they spent the first two and a half years with a mom who was addicted, homeless at times, unsafe, and also had a mental health disorder? And at that point I know that all of the behavioral concerns are symptoms of developmental trauma.

I love these kids. I really do. Fits and all. Because when I work with these kids, I see someone who wants to connect and feel safe, but they have no idea how to make that happen. When you ask them why they flipped out over being asked to take out the trash, they really have no idea. They don’t like how they feel any more than you do. They’re typically aware they can’t keep friends, but they don’t know why either. These kids are more prone to depression, anxiety, risk-taking behaviors, and substance abuse as they get older. 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 the trauma.

With increased stability, practicing skills, and having parents try to respond in a different way, it helps, but the focus can’t just be on the behaviors. The child will be able to maintain for a while, long enough to get to play video games after school, but sooner or later, something will make them break. And parents—shocked by feeling like they’ve taken a million steps backward, don’t know what happened.

A regulated brain often comes with an improvement in behaviors, but an improvement in behaviors doesn’t necessarily mean the brain is regulated or that they child has suddenly switched from an insecure to a secure attachment style. Sometimes a change in behavior means they’re being compliant. They don’t want to feel like they’re in trouble, or maybe the incentives you’re offering are something they really want, but compliance and incentives only work for so long, and those methods can come at a price.

Overly compliant children are sometimes so fearful of being rejected if they mess up that they become perfectionistic and their value doesn’t depend on who they are but on how well they do. And kids raised on incentives can struggle with the internal motivation as they need as they get older.

What I want parents to understand is that the behaviors are a symptom—if you treat the trauma, you’ll treat the behaviors, but treating behaviors is not the same thing as treating trauma.

While we have other blogs regarding trauma, and there are more to come, I don’t want to leave you without any tools to address the trauma your child experienced. Here’s a quick bullet point list of some things you can do:

  1. Co-regulate: this bonds child to parent, so if your child experience attachment trauma, this is vital. Think about all of the bonding interactions you have with a baby: rocking, gazing, cooing (prosody and using your voice to comfort), bear hugs (think of swaddling) or weighted blankets), touch, the sucking motion (Think of a binky. Peppermints, or even a water bottle with a straw), etc.
  2. Regulate before trying to use reason or trying to talk through what happened.
  3. Be as predictable as possible with your child’s schedule: unexpected changes can trigger a fear response.
  4. Use re-dos rather than consequences/punishments: did your child speak to you with a disrespectful tone? Very calmly and maybe even playfully or lightly, ask him or her to try again “with respect”. (This one only works pre-meltdown). Relying on consequences and punishments can make negative behaviors feel like a scary thing. And fear perpetuates the lying/manipulation/meltdown issue.
  5. Keep in mind, discipline means “to teach”. You’re teaching your child what is appropriate is important and that doesn’t always look like a punishment.
  6. The punishment consequence needs to fit the crime: I’m not saying consequences aren’t a part of discipline, but it needs 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 leaving the 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 and relationships are so important to kids with early trauma, so I never like consequences that affect their relationships if it can be avoided. That might mean still letting your son go to the sleepover even though he punched his brother (the consequence focuses on how he repairs what happened with his brother). Or here’s another for instance: your teen has been experimenting with drugs with a certain peer group. You want to lock them in their room and keep them away from everyone, but what if you let him go on the Florida trip with school because you know the negative peers won’t be there, but the positive peers will be. You’re not rewarding bad behavior by letting him go—positive relationships are a protective factor against risk taking behavior. Discipline should feel safe and always have their best interest in mind.
  7. Provide a safe-space: some kids feel safer when they feel closed in—that’s why a lot of kids will hide in closets or under the bed when they become stressed. Try setting up a tent and making it cozy for when they’re getting worked up.
  8. Use “time-ins”. Instead of giving time outs and sending your child away, try a time in. That’s when they need to be next to you for however long. When kids have attachment trauma, being sent away can be a scary and hurtful thing.
  9. Go to counseling: kids need to process what happened to them. That may be through play, art, EMDR, equine therapy, music therapy, and more. Find someone you trust to work with your child (and someone your child connects with).
  10. Lastly, I’m a big advocate for neurofeedback for those who have experienced early life trauma. From an early age that person (child or 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 related to one of those fear responses. If you can help the brain regulate, you help the person experience the world, relationships, and themselves and still feel safe. 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).

Leave a Reply