All children need structure and occasional discipline. It’s important when disciplining kids and youth who’ve been in the child welfare system to take a “trauma-informed” approach to discipline. This means bearing in mind that most children who’ve been in foster care have experiences that have left them more emotionally vulnerable than most. At Walden, we help equip foster and adoptive parents with training to help them be the kind of trusted adults that can help traumatized kids heal and grow on healthy life paths. Here are some tips to use when disciplining traumatized children:

  • Take some time – Aim for a responsive approach to discipline as opposed to being reactive. You want to give yourself time to think through the right response. Gentleness and consistency while setting reasonable, safe guidelines will yield positive results.
  • Find the middle way – Some parents seem to feel like failures if their kids don’t have perfect behavior. Other parents are so reticent to enforce any discipline because they feel it would be harmful. Aim for the happy middle ground between those two.
  • Be okay with throwing out an old playbook – It’s natural when parenting to reflect on how one’s own parents may have handled a situation, but this strategy usually doesn’t take into account the past trauma your child has suffered. Instead, try thinking about your non-negotiables (immediate needs), then those you’d really like (short-term goal), and finally those that would be nice someday (long-term goal). Such as: a non-negotiable could be no hitting; you would really like your child to work on being able to calm down when they are feeling anxious or upset and better table manners could be a nice someday.
  • A new justice paradigm – When working with traumatized children, you may want to adjust your idea of justice – not every action needs a consequence (worrying that they “will get away with it.”) Your goal is to heal trauma and equip them to live as functioning adults. If you focus on that goal, then it can be easier to choose disciplinary techniques based on what they need, not on your sense of justice.
  • Model calming techniques – If you feel angry, model a calming technique, saying, “I’m feeling angry right now and need to sit down for ten minutes and be quiet, so I can calm down.” This is good emotional modeling. Kids often do what is modeled (eventually).

Your calm and consistent presence will eventually make them feel safe, but testing is part of this process, so expect it. It is normal and natural for you to feel angry in response to strong anger from your child, but they will not be able to calm down if you can’t do it first.

Our brains contain something called mirror neurons, which actually reflect and cause us to feel the feelings of others around us (this is how we have empathy). So when you are able to contain and calm anger, then your child can start mirroring your calmness.

We’ll share more tips for trauma-informed parenting in the coming weeks as Walden Family Services celebrates National Adoption Month.

More resources on this issue:

Parent Resource and Education Program (PREP) from Walden Family Services

Catch Kids Being Good: Praise and the Praise Box from BoysTown

Trauma-Informed Parenting, What You Should Know from Fostering Perspectives