by Ashley Bennett, Director of Trauma-Informed Care
Before we take a look at new ways of engaging our children during moments of behavioral challenge, we first have to acknowledge that the parenting playbook for our children will likely need to look different than the parenting playbook from the way we were raised or maybe even the way we raised our biological children. So, let’s take a moment to acknowledge some of the parenting tools that are out there being used by various parents and consider why they likely won’t be as appropriate for us.
Spanking: Obviously, as a foster parent, you are not allowed to give your child any kind of physical punishment. But let’s go beyond just that restriction, to the bigger picture here. Your child has a history of relational harm and might even have a history in which an adult used their body as a weapon against the child-either in the form of physical or sexual abuse. You may know some part of your child’s story, but you will never fully understand what that looked like or felt like for them. Some of you are raising a child that has this history but has never even told anyone. Likewise, many of our children have witnessed domestic violence between caregivers or abuse of siblings and what we know about the brain is that watching abuse take place, even if you didn’t receive the abuse directly yourself, activates the same part of the brain as if you had. This means that our children can be easily triggered to go back to a place of fear and self-protection. When you engage in physical punishment, you have the strong possibility of triggering the child and reactivating the stress response system, reminding them of their abuse.
Other things that are similar include yelling, using harsh tones, or making demands as this too can activate the fear response center and if you get compliance it’s likely only compliance out of fear, not relationship.
Time-outs: Timeouts are a commonly used way of engaging inappropriate behavior, especially for our youngest children. The challenge with time-outs is that it often requires an amount of self-regulation that a lot of our children just aren’t capable of. When children are told they need to “calm down” by themselves, we are setting some impossible standards for some of our children. Children with brain-based changes due to in utero toxins or neglect and abuse often struggle to regulate independently. They need a safe adult to help them instead. So, if you are trying traditional timeouts and they aren’t working, our Engaging Challenging Behaviors Training Module for foster parents will give you similar alternatives to help a child return to calm.
Lectures: As adults, we are pretty good at using lots of words and logical explanations for why something should or should not happen. I know I am pretty good at it! The problem with this is that the average youth stops listening to adult lectures pretty quickly into the conversation. Now if we add in the fact that many kids who experience abuse and neglect also have processing delays and sensory needs, we can pretty much guarantee that your kid isn’t hearing you and that you are wasting your best material! Lectures and long, drawn-out conversations just don’t usually work well following a conflict with your kid. Short and sweet is much better and we’ll teach you more about that in our training module.
Consequences: While I am a big fan of natural consequences, sometimes out of frustration we adults grab for consequences that don’t have anything to do with the situation. We hope that the punishment will be felt strongly enough for the behavior to never occur again. Sometimes, if we are being honest with ourselves, we also do this because we want the child or youth to feel a piece of the pain they are causing us with their behaviors. So, we remove the tv privileges, we ground them from activities, we take away their favorite toy. Or maybe similarly we don’t take something away, but we give them an extra task to do like a chore. But often, this punishment just disconnects us and does nothing to change the behavior we hoped to see in the future. Also, for this to work, children need to have a strong cause and effect thinking brain and most of the time, this isn’t online for our kids yet. In our training module, we’ll talk you through an alternative that creates a stronger learning opportunity for your youth than simply removing a privilege from them.
Reward charts: Another tool I hear about often is the use of reward charts, the idea that we set goals with our child and reward them when they meet the goal. This might be used to increase wanted behaviors like completing tasks or doing chores or might be used to distinguish unwanted behaviors. Regardless of the way it is used, it can be successful for some kids who have a strong internal desire to comply or please or have a significant amount of self-regulation. But the reward chart won’t work for a child who can’t simply “will” himself to succeed. If you are parenting a child with regulation needs or sensory needs or a child who is still living in an activated stress response system, these reward charts won’t work because the child can’t “choose” to be different in ways that would allow him to be successful with your reward chart. Teaching skills is such an important part of what it looks like to welcome a child or youth into your home but in our training module, we’ll talk about some ways you can teach that will promote real learning and won’t be as dependent on reward charts.
Likewise, bribery might get you compliance in the moment, but it only teaches your child to depend on rewards for right behavior and doesn’t have long term success at correcting behaviors.
Alright, that’s just a small look at why we might need to engage and parent our kids differently than the way we were raised or maybe even the ways we raised our biological kids. You’ll likely find that these ideas would work wonderfully for all the kids in your home—even your biological children! It’s never too late to try something new with your family and enjoy the benefits for everyone!
If you are a Restore Network foster family, check out our training module “Engaging Challenging Behaviors” to learn more!