For those of us with children from hard places, instability can be one of the worst times for our children. They feel the change in their schedule, their location, and even the way they feel throughout the day more acutely than other children their age. “Children from Hard Places” is a term coined by Dr. Karyn Purvis at the TCU Institute of Child Development. This describes children who have lived through a type of abuse, neglect, or trauma in their lives. This trauma can also include prenatal substance exposure, prenatal exposure to high stress, difficult labor, and even medical trauma at birth or afterward.
Trauma of this nature can be experienced by any child but is experienced at a higher rate by children who have either been adopted or have lived through foster care.
Typically, these children thrive in a predictable environment. They go to therapies, they have interventions, and they get used to living in a world where they have learned to cope. Unfortunately, the world is not as stable as we would often hope. There are events in life that alter the world in such a way that children are forced to adapt and change their routines. Natural disasters, pandemics, even snow days can be difficult for these children. So, what can we do to help when our kiddos need us? How can we add stability in an unstable time? You can help your child these three ways.
1. Stabilize yourself.
There is the saying on airplanes that you need to put on your oxygen mask first. You are not helpful to the younger people in need around you if you cannot breathe. Similarly, when in crisis, children look to the adults around them to help them navigate the situation and will often imitate the emotions they see in the faces of adults. This means you have to find ways to feel stability and calm yourself. This can mean going on a daily run, cooking, finding time to read, getting plenty of sleep each night, drinking more water, or whatever it is that helps you to feel a sense of calm.
The number one thing is time with the Lord. Make sure you begin your day grounded in God’s Word and in communication with Him.
Personally, I spend time with the Lord before going on a run or walk each morning. On the days that are particularly difficult, I set an alarm to go off every two hours all day. When I hear that alarm, I stop to pray, breathe, and drink a glass of water. This helps me to stay calm throughout the day. This alarm almost always comes at the exact right time.
2. Create an attachment-friendly environment.
During this difficult time, you want to help your child feel that the attachment they share with you is secure. You and your love are something that will not change regardless of the situation at hand.
Take a family photo.
This can be a simple way for your children see that you view them as part of the family.
Create a family routine.
Even though their typical routine has been disrupted, you can create a new routine so that they know what to expect each day.
Try not to be frustrated with the frequent questions like “What are we doing today?” or “What’s for dinner?” This may seem like typical child-like impatience but can often really show a desire to feel control when their world is out of control and to be able to feel a sense of security in knowing what comes next. Allow your children to ask these questions and provide them those answers.
Make focused time to play with them each day.
Places like the Apollos Center for Healing and Growth can even teach you how to do a special type of play (typically labeled “Special Play Time”) that will create strong attachment bonds and give your child a safe space to express their emotions.
Create a “yes” bowl.
Many children from hard places struggle with food insecurity. It is hard for many of us to imagine this feeling, but most likely we will never know exactly what these children have been through. Help them to feel secure in knowing that food is available at all times. The “yes bowl” is a bowl of snacks that are always allowed. In our house, the answer to food in the “yes bowl” is “yes” unless we are actively plating a meal. Even then, we make compromises where they can have that snack after the meal. If they are struggling, you may even invite them to pick their snack and put it next to their plate so that they know that the snack will be available to them.
Encourage your child to be a child.
This means that you may pick up extra chores or that you help them with tasks they are old enough to do alone. This helps your child to see that you can take care of them and they do not have to take care of themselves.
Leave notes or give random compliments.
Letting your child know all the things you love about them regardless of their mood or behavior is valuable. You are reinforcing to them that there is nothing they can do to negate your love. Even if our kiddo gets in trouble, we spend time letting them know they are loved, and telling them all the things we love about them. They are good children who made a bad choice.
Focus less on good behavior.
Most parents want nothing more than for their children to behave well. This feels normative to most of us. However, the primary goal of your relationship should be to build connections built on trust. Many things you desire and many things your children need, including good behavior, will grow out of these connections and trust.
Offer a redo.
When children make mistakes, a great way to teach them is to offer them a redo. We help them to see what went wrong and give them a chance to do it again with a different outcome. This allows them to learn without needing lectures, timeouts, or lists of consequences.
Balance structure and nurture.
Dr. Purvis frequently spoke about the preciousness of each child. This is such an important thing to remember as you try to create balance between structure and nurture for your child and find joy in parenting them.
3. Listen to what they need.
Be willing to assess what is and is not working alongside your child. You can help them take an assessment of their bodies as well as their day. Use a paper plate to draw a gas tank on it where the far right is red (or hot) and the far left is blue (or cold) while the middle is just right. Help them to listen to their bodies and express where they feel on this spectrum. As they realize that they are too hot or too cold, help them to find different methods to calm down or ramp up their body as needed.
We have taken to posting a list in pictures of things our children can do to help themselves calm down when they feel “red”. This allows them to feel like they have choices and helps them to feel like they have some control.
It is important that they know their emotions are allowed but that they can learn how to handle those emotions in a way that does not overwhelm them.
This also helps them to see that you are not telling them that their emotions are bad and that you are with them in the journey to discover how to handle those emotions.
We also take time at the end of each day to talk about what did and did not work. This can look just like a high-low time during dinner or be a more formalized discussion depending on the age of your child. Allow them a space to let you know what felt bad. Give them a safe space to complain. Sometimes you’ll just need to listen here but sometimes this will give you precious insights into how you can fine-tune your environment to give them more security.
For more information on how to help your children, here are some excellent resources that will get you started:
This is an excellent source for videos and articles about parenting children from hard places.
This website will teach you more about Trust-Based Relational Intervention and how it can help you to parent in a trauma-informed, attachment-based way.
The Connected Child by David Cross, Karyn Purvis, and Wendy Sunshine
This book will help build trust bonds, help with discipline for vulnerable children, and more.
The Whole Brain Child by David J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
This book explains how a child’s brain works and how it will mature over time. This gives explanations, illustrations, and strategies to help any parent.