Updated: May 19, 2021
Almost every parent has faced dealing with their child’s temper meltdowns. Whether it’s the “terrible twos” or the “terrible tweens/teens”, tantrums are part of the developmental landscape for many kids, particularly toddlers. For these little ones, tantrums are typically associated with the development of their will; for older kids, emotional outbursts can be connected to the desire for premature independence or indicative of interpersonal conflicts with their parents. When parenting an adopted or foster child, however, we must keep in mind that there is often another layer of factors that often motivates their emotional outbursts.
For the child who has been traumatized—which is almost all adoptive and foster children—the primal need for CONTROL OF THEIR ENVIRONMENT is the number one priority. For any person, regardless of age who has been through a traumatic situation, their biggest need is to establish personal safety. For the child whose’ personal safety has been violated through abuse, neglect, abandonment, etc., he/she will go to great lengths to protect this personal safety. You’ve probably heard of the “Fight-Flight-Freeze” responses in children who have been traumatized. Depending on the situation and how the child is “wired’ internally, they will employ one of these responses when they sense real or perceived threat. I recall a young lady, age 19 that I worked with in a residential setting. She was involved in a heated verbal altercation with another resident and was livid. When I tried to calm her down, I found myself beginning to escalate my voice to her level and we got into an argument. Big mistake on my part. She was a fighter and her choice was to verbally fight with me to maintain her sense of control and safety for herself.
Here are some helpful approaches to addressing your child's outbursts:
STEP #1 FOR PARENTS: WITH EVERY FIBER OF YOUR BEING, REMAIN CALM. Yes, I understand this is much easier said than done. And yes, your child needs to be responsible for her behavior, but we will get into that later. Remaining calm—even if you have to fake it—shows the child that you are in control of yourself even though she is not in control of herself. This is something your child needs to see in you in order to feel safe.
STEP #2: As difficult as it is, in our minds, we have to try to separate the child from the behavior. His behavior is not happening in a vacuum. It has motivating factors that often have nothing to do with you. For the previously-traumatized child, his outbursts are often connected to a past event.
STEP #3: PHYSICAL PROXIMITY: If at all possible, stay physically close to your child without touching him. This tells the child you are not going anywhere and are present with him. This is most effective with younger children. Encourage him to breathe calmly. Speak softly. Again, these approaches may go against your grain if your heart is racing and you’re tempted to raise your voice to gain control of the situation; but since your child realizes he is out of control he needs to know that you are not.
We’re not done yet! . . . more to come next time.