Helping a Child and Yourself Regain Control
Pushing back against trauma's disempowerment.
Posted Nov 20, 2019
In Part 4 we’ll focus on the remaining interventions: Understanding and managing control-seeking behaviors; and taking care of yourself.
Understanding and managing control-seeking behaviors
A traumatic experience is, at its core, an experience of being out of control. Someone, something, or a force of nature has overwhelmed a person’s sense of their capacity to keep themselves safe. In a car accident, we slam on the brakes but are unable to prevent the impending event. While being attacked by a person or an animal we meet the limitations of our usual strategies for moving through the world without encountering threats of bodily harm. In the worst-case scenario, we find ourselves unable to prevent injury.
When a child experiences a potentially traumatic event (PTE) they can have their own sense of safety and control swept away, and like adults who have that experience, they may need to reassert their sense of control in order to calm their physiological and psychological reactions to the scary incident. This is why some children respond to a PTE in a way that seems contrary to common sense. They push the caregiver away, take more risks, and seem to seek greater independence, just when their need for protection and nurturing are most profound.
Control-seeking behaviors can take many forms. They may be brand new additions to the child’s repertoire or there may be an escalation of patterns of behavior that were present prior to the PTE. Four ways a child may seek to regain control over themselves are:
- Disobedience (not listening or responding inappropriately)
- Oppositional behaviors (“No!”)
- Aggression (physical or verbal hostility aimed at others, things or themselves)
Parents may understandably respond to these new or worsening patterns as attempts to gain attention or to take-their-anger-out-on-us, and other common interpretations of misbehavior. After a potentially traumatic event (PTE) it is wise to see these behaviors through a trauma-lens: to consciously maintain awareness that they are very likely powerful, self-protective, reactions to the PTE.
Through the trauma-lens we recognize that the child is responding not only to the initial experience of having felt unprotected when the event occurred, but also to the present internal reactions–physical sensations, emotional swings, and repeating cognitive images–that act as restraints chaining the child to the initial event. Control- seeking behaviors are the child’s attempts to break free of those restraining and distressing trauma reactions.
Professionals have learned that when human beings are in danger, they often become hypervigilant, having a heightened sense of guardedness, and that they often do not return to their normal levels of vigilance when the physical threat has passed. The hypervigilance persists as long as the system struggles to find its way back to a felt-sense-of-safety. Therefore, the parent’s optimal response to these behaviors is to treat them as signs of underlying insecurity and fear.
Helpful steps to take with your misbehaving child:
- Name the emotion: depending on their stage of development they may be able to participate in this naming, but they may also need you to simply give them the name for what it is they are feeling.
- Suggest and share a connection to the PTE: It is less important that they comprehend the relationship than it is for them to know that their caregiver sees this behavior as related to the PTE
- Reassure them as to safety in the present and the future: talk about the changes that have been made since the PTE (i.e.: the offender is not around or is in treatment, that the police/others know what happened, that they are not going to that place anymore)
- Let them know that you are increasing supervision and that you are doing so, not because they have been bad, but to help keep them safe. Part of this protective supervision is also to work cooperatively with the child to support their efforts to get reactions under control.
Take care of yourself
Let’s start this last section with good news: Recent research (Hahn, et al. 2019) has shown that caregiver participation in a child’s early intervention therapy can significantly promote the healing of the caregiver from their own trauma wounds. This means that many caregivers may find themselves getting better simply by being actively involved in their child’s healing process and this may relieve the family system from having to initiate several therapies at once.
All of the interventions offered in this four-part series are drawn from the same treatment model featured in the Hahn, et al. (2019) research—Child and Family Traumatic Stress Intervention. If caregivers experience themselves as effective in helping their child to heal from a PTE it makes a great deal of sense that the caregivers’ sense of competence will increase. As stated earlier, an increased sense of competency can be directly related to a sense of personal safety and well-being.
Reminders of how caregivers can care for themselves:
- Notice the changes that are happening in yourself. Remember that this PTE may cause a flare-up of symptoms related to your own prior traumatic experiences
- Increase your connections to your support systems
- Everything you learn about trauma and healing may apply to you too
- Don’t just observe your child in treatment: get involved, do the exercises, interact with your child and the therapist
- If you find yourself needing an immediate intervention that is separate from your child’s therapy, be confident that seeking that help is essential not only for yourself but for the wellbeing of your children and your whole family.
Two concluding thoughts:
A potentially traumatic event has the tendency to communicate a message that we are powerless and should retreat, hide and isolate. We can counter that message by consciously striving toward direct communication, increased connection to our support networks and reengaging with our own vitality and strengths.
As caregivers, we do not need to sit on the sidelines of our child’s healing process. Children need us to be engaged and to lead them back to a restored, or even greater, sense of security.
If there is anything I haven’t addressed that you are wondering about please leave a comment. I’ll try to respond promptly.
Hahn, H., Putnam, K., Epstein, C., Marans, S., & Putnam, F. (2019). Child and family traumatic stress intervention (CFTSI) reduces parental posttraumatic stress symptoms: A multi-site meta-analysis (MSMA). Child Abuse & Neglect, 92; pp 106-115.
Gardner, S., Loya, T., & Hyman, C. (2014). FamilyLive: Parental Skill Buiilding for Caregivers with Interpersonal Trauma Exposures. Clinical Social Work Journal, 42; 81-89.
Cohen, J.A., Berliner, L., & Mannarino, A. (2010). Trauma focused CBT for children with co-occurring trauma and behavior problems. Child Abuse & Neglect, 34, 215-224.