Parenting Tough Children

Story by Lexie Smith, M.S., L.P.C., Child Psychotherapist

Whether you’re going through difficulties with your own child or a child whom you’ve taken into your home, parenting can be tough. While it’s normal to experience some difficulties with getting your child to brush their teeth, follow directions, and be told “no”, sometimes, as parents, we run out of options in our tool bag and feel like we are at the end of our rope. For those parents who are barely hanging on, THERE IS HOPE!

Twenty-six percent of children experience trauma before the age of four. If you’re thinking, my child has not been through trauma, what does this have to do with their behavior, let me explain. Trauma can be directly related to behavior and health problems throughout the lifespan of the child. When we hear the word trauma, most people think of major events like car accidents, but trauma can also be relationship-based. This trauma can be from abuse or neglect, divorce, multiple placements in schools, malnutrition while their mother was pregnant, or lack of bonding during infancy. The list goes on (see Exposure to trauma can lead to emotional dysregulation and loss of a sense of safety, trust, and direction – AKA “I don’t care and you can’t make me” syndrome.

To help resolve the trauma, parents have to learn how to connect, empower, and correct their children. It takes 400 repetitions to learn something new, but only 12 if you learn it while engaging in play. Specialists in child development have adapted a new parenting approach using tools from Trust-Based Relational Intervention.  It combines nurturing and structure in a way that teaches respect and compliance while also being loving and playful. This means no yelling, no shaming, and no isolating (timeouts!) on the part of the parents. There are four levels of engagement: playful, structured, calming, or protective.

In playful engagement, parents meet the energy or distress levels of the kids. This is a low-level challenge.  So if your child is being slightly defiant they may be asked playfully “Are you askin’ or tellin’?” or “Can we try again with respect?” Parents will have to be very mindful of their own emotions. Children are great at knowing the right buttons to push so be careful not to let them get pushed. You also need to be able to recognize when your child is about to meet the “path of no return.” Recognizing signs of stress can help prevent meltdowns and it gives your child an opportunity to handle stress in a healthy way. “Redos” are a simple, yet powerful, technique. It allows your child to go back to the scene of the problem and re-do the activity with appropriate behavior. This helps build motor memory. An example of this in adults is typing. You do it so much that you can do it without looking or thinking. It is the same idea for repeating positive behaviors.

Structured engagement involves compromising and role-play. This is when your child is slightly more escalated. In compromises, when the child says “no” the parent can offer two choices of how to proceed or help them express their needs with words. For example, if it is 8:50 and you ask your child to go to bed and they give you the usual “I don’t want to, you can’t make me” you can ask if they would like to go to bed in 10 minutes and have to go to bed 10 minutes earlier the next day or go ahead and go to bed now. Or you can encourage them to ask for their own compromise such as “May I please wait 10 minutes until 9 o’clock?” Role-playing helps build social competence and increase motor memory, as well.

Learning self-regulation techniques is part of calming engagement. Self-regulation techniques are used to help the child learn how to calm themselves down. First, your child will learn these techniques with the parent. Next, you and your child will practice them regularly when the child is not upset. Then, you help your child begin to use them when they begin to feel upset until they can use the self-regulation techniques on their own. Using “time-ins” to help reflect on choices or “finding a quiet place” to help improve self-regulation is also helpful.

Finally, protective engagement is when there is a significant threat of violence or harm by the child to themselves or someone else. If the prior levels of engagement have not worked try to continue remaining calm and reassuring, but contain the violence. Parents should seek formal training in interventions that require physically restraining a child.

Ideally, parents will bounce between the first three levels of engagement to help their child improve their behavior without violence. These steps are a proven way to improve behavior through connection.  Other documented outcomes are that kids increase their expressive communication, learn how to negotiate their needs, build trust and confidence in their parents, and develop important social skills like boundaries and respect. All of this happens through “playful practicing,” making it a positive experience for both parents and kids.

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