In my last blog I talked about some of the more common types of regression that previously traumatized children express. But what about the high-stress ones that cause us parents to want to take a month-long vacation on a deserted island? In my blog series on “Meltdowns” this past spring, I addressed the connection between prior trauma and behavioral outbursts in children. As I conclude this current series, I just want to add some additional—and hopefully helpful—tools for your parenting toolbox.
I shared recently that previously traumatized children often do not “act their age” especially when they are stressed. They emotionally regress to an earlier age. This regression can often manifest itself in temper tantrums or extended crying. What’s a parent to do? First of all, we must consider what might be fueling our child’s behavior—things like fatigue, fear or even physical hunger or thirst. These are feelings that trigger a “primitive” reaction in a previously-traumatized child’s brain, causing them to unravel emotionally. Therefore, we must first remember what doesn’t work—things like yelling, lecturing, or use of logic or reasoning (at least not while the tantrum is occurring). Those type of approaches only increase our stress as well as our child’s stress.
If your child is pitching a major fit about something, it is possible to accept their anger, but not accept how your child expresses it: “Madison, I know you’re are angry because I will not let you go outside until you clean up your room, but it is not acceptable for you to throw things in your room and break them—that is not acceptable.” In situations like this it is very important for you to respond to the negative behavior immediately and firmly without yelling.
Another helpful hint when dealing with regressive tantrums: Stay calm (and you may have to “fake it until you make it” here), and refuse to negotiate. Many parents, when fatigued and stressed will try to make deals with their kids, i.e. “If you stop screaming, I will let you stay up an hour later tonight.” This only serves to put your child more firmly in the driver’s seat to manipulate you. Even though your child has exhibited regressive behavior in the past as a means of survival, he must now learn-through your coaching and example—that he can “act his age” with repeated practice.
Finally, when you child has calmed down from his tantrum, it’s important for you to do immediate follow up. Get on is level physically and try to—but not force—eye contact. Ask him gently “Can I see those eyes for just a little bit?” Talk through what just happened, that you love him and that you believe in him. Talk about how he can more appropriately act when the same situation comes up again. Believe me, most kids who have been through trauma are often self-loathing after they have thrown a tantrum. Yes, there must be logical consequences, but you must also offer grace that gives the child the message that he is loved unconditionally.