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Positive Parenting after Trauma

Being a parent is one of the most wonderful experiences a person can have. It is also one of the most challenging.  There are so many opposing viewpoints and directions parents are pulled in about the “right way” to do things. This blog on positive parenting is not intended to be a “right way,” merely one of support, and information for those hectic times when you don’t know “what else to do.”  There is often a focus on what to do when things go wrong, which misses the main point, which is what to do to prevent things from going aray in the first place.

When a child has experienced trauma, they may act out in ways that don’t “make sense” to parents. Children who have experienced trauma may act out in anger, and can be very good at pushing parents buttons.  It is important to remember during these times where the anger and acting out comes from. This way, you are able to keep a clear head when you intervene. This, of course, is easier said than done when you are at your wits end! Let’s talk about some positive parenting techniques that you can begin to implement with your child trauma-survivor or even your other kids!

Positive Parenting Techniques

Praise and Positive Attention

The idea is so simple, and yet it is one of the first things to fall to the wayside when things get hectic.  Kids, ESPECIALLY KIDS WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED TRAUMA, need love and attention, and if they don’t get the positive kind they are more likely to act out to get the negative kind.  So what kinds of things deserve praise? That depends on what are you wanting more of from your child.

If you are wanting your daughter to stop hitting her brother, you praise when she is sitting nicely keeping her hands to herself. Wanting your son to pick up his room? Praise him when he puts a toy away. If you are wanting your daughter to stop getting in trouble at school, you are praising and rewarding her when there are no incidents at school that day. Keep the praise specific. I often hear parents saying, “great job” or “good boy,” which show that parents are really making the effort to praise.  Shifting to using a labeled praise like, “Carly, great job giving your brother a hug,” or “Zach, I’m so proud of you for getting a smiley face in school today,” is even more precise.  The more specific the praise, the better your child will understand what is expected of him or her.  Keeping along these same lines, the sooner you are able to provide the praise the better, and the more consistent you are with your praise, the better.

Don’t qualify your praise

It is easy to get caught up in what you wish your child was doing even better, but as soon as you insert that “but” in the sentence, you disqualify the praise that you are giving.  After all, how do you feel when your boss says, “Great job on that presentation, but next time you should spend more time on your powerpoint”? This feeling of disapproval and let down is what your kids experience when you try to give even well-meaning constructive criticism with the praise.  Save it for another time. It is valuable, but is it the MOST valuable part in that moment??

Selective Attention

Selective attention is when parents pay attention to and praise positive behaviors, and completely ignore the child when they engage in negative behaviors.  This positive parenting strategy is good for: defiant or angry backtalk, nasty faces, rolling eyes, smirking, mocking, or mimicking. The pushback I sometimes hear about this intervention is, “how can I just ignore my child’s poor behavior?”  First let me say, unsafe behaviors are never ignored, they are handled directly when they are first noticed. Second, since we are working under the pretense that children thrive on attention, by removing the attention that they are desiring, they are not being rewarded for their behavior.  Believe it or not, even scolding a child sometimes provides the attention that a child is looking for.

To ignore, move your body and gaze away from the child in a deliberate manner, and do not speak to, respond, or engage with the child in any way. After the behavior stops, or the desired amount of time, you can go about interacting with your child in the usual way.  If the behavior continues, remove your attention again, until the behavior stops or you have again met the desired amount of time. During the ignoring time, you can remain in the room, walk away, or busy yourself with an activity. It is important to remain calm and dispassionate. WARNING:  As children see a new intervention and attempt to revert back to previous interactions, kids may have even bigger reactions or more provocative behavior in the beginning as they fight to regain control.  Continue with your active ignoring and do not react to behavior.  Remind yourself that this is a normal part of the process. When your child sees that even their new behaviors don’t get a reaction they will stop.

Giving Clear Commands

Children need rules and boundaries.  They do much better with short clear commands.  Kids often lose the well-meaning parent’s directive in the midst of long sentences or lectures.  Use IF…THEN…statements to give predictability and controllability. Using this type of statement allows your child to see what will happen if they do the stated behavior.  It is also important to follow through on whatever your “then” statement was. For example, if you hit your sister, then you will get time out. The statement is very clear what is desired/expected of the child, and what will happen if the child doesn’t comply.  

A less effective statement would be, “Gosh, why are you always hitting your sister? Please don’t hit your sister because it isn’t a nice thing to do. It makes me really mad when you hit her. You don’t want to see what happens if you hit her again”. This statement, besides being threatening, does not give a clear command that the child can follow.  The desired message gets lost in all of the extra words. No statement about WHAT will happen if he continues to hit her is mentioned. It is also best to get your child’s attention (e.g. make eye contact) while giving the command and be as specific as possible.  For example, “put the block in the box,” is better than “go clean your room.”  

Further, commands should be positively stated.  Avoid “don’t, stop, quit, no”. Changing “stop running in the hall” to “use your walking feet” is easier for kids to understand.   

Time Out

Time out is for younger kids (less than 7 years old).  The purpose is to interrupt your child’s negative behaviors and allow him or her to regain control.  It is important to explain to your child what he or she is receiving time out for. For example, “You are in time out because you hit your brother.  This time is to calm down and be safe. I will be back in 3 minutes to check if you have calmed down”. The time out area should be quiet and low in stimulation.  You can remind your child of any coping skills he or she uses such as belly breathing. Once your child is in time out, you should refrain from comments and maintain a calm demeanor (use your active ignoring!)  Lastly be consistent and always follow through on your original command.

Moving Beyond Time Out

Natural consequences are natural things that result from your child’s behavior.  For example, if your child breaks his TV, the TV is broken is a natural consequence.  It does not mean that you should replace the TV, but that he must live without it. Also, if your child refuses to wash his clothes when you have asked, the natural consequence is that he has to go to school in something dirty or find something else to wear.  Natural consequences are the best form of punishment. When they do not exist for a particular situation or are inappropriate, you can choose to ground a child or remove something that he or she enjoys (e.g. tablet time). Make sure that the grounding time fits the crime, though.  Shorter terms are almost always better.

For example, it is better to have your child’s tablet time EACH NIGHT dependent on in school behavior that day, than it is to remove the tablet for a week based on one bad day. The longer time leaves 6 other days where the child has no motivation to be good because he or she already knows that the tablet is gone for that time anyway.  When something big happens it is normal to want to make a big punishment in response. Keeping a clear head and evaluating the situation is better than making a punishment that inadvertently reinforces more bad behavior.

Behavior Charts

Behavior charts reward good behavior or identify a punishable behavior.  It is important to only choose 1-2 behaviors to work on at a time.  Begin small so there’s a chance for success/reward to get the child’s buy-in.  If there is both a rewardable and punishable chart being used, make sure that there are separate rewards and punishments.  For example, if Michael needs 4 days with a smiley face at school to get a trip to the park with his mother on Saturday, then the punishable chart should have a completely different punishment than losing the trip to the park.  This means that if he gets 4 days of smiley faces at school, he gets the trip to the park even if he kicks someone on the bus on Friday. Additionally, he has a punishable chart that addresses hitting or kicking behaviors.

Many parents have a hard time giving a reward when their child has done something else that deserves a punishment.  I definitely understand the concern. This is not saying that you should not find another punishment for your child. This just means that the focus is on follow through and consistency, so once you have set a reward or punishment for a specific scenario, it is important to not go back on it, even when you are frustrated about something else.  

Next Steps for Positive Parenting

Positive parenting is a challenge in general but may present even more challenges when a child has experienced trauma.  It’s common for children to begin acting out after a traumatic event. This is because they don’t know how else to handle their feelings.  The best things you can do for your child is to be patient, consistent, and kind. Where all parents need patience, you may find that you need even more patience as you support your child.  Remember, you are not alone. Lean on your support system, and if you are still having a hard time with positive parenting, family therapy may be right for you!

Dr. Crecraft is a licensed psychologist. She is a trauma specialist, transitions expert, and family disorder healer. Her specialties include emotion regulation, healthy boundaries, and moving on from your past.

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