What is Trauma Informed Parenting
Trauma-informed parenting is an approach to raising children that acknowledges and addresses the potential effects of past traumatic experiences on a child’s development, behavior, and emotional well-being. This parenting style is particularly relevant for children who have experienced trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Trauma in childhood occurs in various forms. The different types of trauma include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, loss of a parent, exposure to violence, sudden separation from the caregiver, dysfunctional families, and institutional racism.
Impact of childhood trauma on child development
Childhood traumas are strongly associated with the onset of psychiatric disorders among US adolescents. Childhood adversities, such as abuse, neglect, losing a parent, and economic adversity, are among the most consistently documented risk factors.
Across all DSM disorder classes, childhood adversities’ risk proportions ranged from 15.7% for fear disorders to 40.7% for behavior disorders1.
Multiple ongoing traumatic events are considered complex trauma that can result in complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
This type of disorder is distinct from single trauma PTSD due to its earlier onset in development and often from the same person who is a source of both threat and safety.
Besides mental well-being, childhood adversities can affect a child’s cognitive functioning.
Imaging studies show that the brain tissue of abused children exhibits a range of anomalies, including disturbances in circuitry, a reduction in brain volume, and reduced white matter in the prefrontal cortex2. These children tend to suffer from memory problems and have lower academic performance3.
Trauma-informed parenting is especially relevant for adoptive and foster parents (resource parents)4.
Children who have endured chronic trauma from caregivers during their early years often struggle with emotional and behavioral regulation. They also tend to have difficulties forming connections with others.
Parenting these children can be particularly challenging.
Effects of trauma may include severe behavior problems. These challenging behaviors are often maladaptive behavior developed to cope with the dangerous environments they were raised in or a lack of skills that have not been taught to them.
Supportive adults who adopt a trauma-informed approach recognize the impacts of trauma and take care to prevent retraumatization of the child.
Understand trauma and behavior
Behavior problems in traumatized children are often coping mechanisms developed in response to trauma rather than a deliberate act of disobedience, disrespect, or personal attack.
For instance, some children may act defiant when it comes to bedtime. Their intense fear for their own safety may result in the child trying to delay bedtime to escape frightening dreams.
Parents’ empathy and patience when dealing with maladaptive behavior are essential for these children’s healing and recovery5.
Providing a safe and predictable environment so that children feel safe and supported is the first step in their recovery.
This can involve being responsive to their needs, setting clear boundaries and routines, and being consistent in parenting6.
Build trust in relationships
Traumatic experiences often break children’s trust in others.
Besides providing a predictable and safe environment, trauma-informed parents can build trust by using trust-based rather than fear-based discipline.
A child is more likely to listen when disciplined through reasoning, connecting, and preventing7.
Reasoning – Teach them why some behaviors are proper while others are unacceptable.
Connecting – Focus on building relationships and solving problems rather than punishing the child.
Preventing – Take proactive steps to prevent disruptive behavior before it happens.
Trust can also be built and maintained by repairing ruptures in the relationship when they occur. When a relationship experiences a breach, trauma-informed parents prioritize making amends to repair the relationship and rebuild trust.
Develop emotional regulation
Many childhood traumas result from harm that occurs within a caregiver-child relationship. They are called attachment traumas. Betrayal in childhood disrupts many developmental processes, including those that lead to regulating emotion, attending to bodily signals, and developing trust.
There are several things parents can do to help children develop emotion regulation and trust in relationships.
Modeling – Parents demonstrate emotional regulation when facing difficulties, serving as a model for children to follow8.
Validation – Acknowledge and validate their child’s feelings, providing them with emotional support.
Co-regulate – Be attuned to and mirror their child’s difficult emotions to co-regulate their intense feelings.
Emotion coaching – Teach children how to identify and understand different kinds of emotions, fostering emotional intelligence.
Coping skills – Teach children how to reframe unfavorable situations, problem-solve, and negotiate better solutions in different contexts.
Speak the Unspeakable
Making sense of their painful experiences is critical in the child’s healing process.
Help the child process their childhood adverse experiences by encouraging them to disclose and discuss difficult topics, ask tough questions, and explore their sometimes overwhelming emotions.
Rather than encouraging them to forget their past, create a safe space for them to speak the unspeakable.
They can only move forward when they have processed the trauma and talked about it coherently9.
Recovery and Self-care
A caregiver’s mental well-being is one of the best predictors of a child’s outcomes, not only for parents who have experienced trauma but also for other caregivers who have not experienced trauma themselves.
It is crucial to prioritize supporting all caregivers in practicing self-care and recovering from any stressors they may experience.
This approach can ultimately benefit the trauma recovery of the children in their care.
Advocate & coordinate
At times, trauma-informed parents may need to advocate on behalf of their children if clinicians who are not trauma experts misunderstand or misdiagnose the effects of trauma on their children. This may involve advocating for and getting involved with appropriate treatment.
They may also need to coordinate with schools and help others understand their children’s upsetting behaviors through a trauma lens.
Also See: 23 Red Flags In Teenage Behavior
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- 1.McLaughlin KA, Greif Green J, Gruber MJ, Sampson NA, Zaslavsky AM, Kessler RC. Childhood Adversities and First Onset of Psychiatric Disorders in a National Sample of US Adolescents. Arch Gen Psychiatry. Published online November 1, 2012:1151. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.2277
- 2.Siegel JP. Breaking the Links in Intergenerational Violence: An Emotional Regulation Perspective. Fam Proc. Published online March 25, 2013:163-178. doi:10.1111/famp.12023
- 3.Dye H. The impact and long-term effects of childhood trauma. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment. Published online February 7, 2018:381-392. doi:10.1080/10911359.2018.1435328
- 4.Sullivan KM, Murray KJ, Ake GS III. Trauma-Informed Care for Children in the Child Welfare System. Child Maltreat. Published online November 23, 2015:147-155. doi:10.1177/1077559515615961
- 5.Coleman PK, Karraker KH. Parenting Self-Efficacy Among Mothers of School-Age Children: Conceptualization, Measurement, and Correlates*. Family Relations. Published online January 2000:13-24. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2000.00013.x
- 6.Sanders MR, Hall SL. Trauma-informed care in the newborn intensive care unit: promoting safety, security and connectedness. J Perinatol. Published online August 17, 2017:3-10. doi:10.1038/jp.2017.124
- 7.Parris SR, Dozier M, Purvis KB, Whitney C, Grisham A, Cross DR. Implementing Trust-Based Relational Intervention® in a Charter School at a Residential Facility for At-Risk Youth. Contemp School Psychol. Published online September 23, 2014:157-164. doi:10.1007/s40688-014-0033-7
- 8.Ford JD, Blaustein ME. Systemic Self-Regulation: A Framework for Trauma-Informed Services in Residential Juvenile Justice Programs. J Fam Viol. Published online August 28, 2013:665-677. doi:10.1007/s10896-013-9538-5
- 9.Crenshaw DA, Hardy KV. The crucial role of empathy in breaking the silence of traumatized children in play therapy. International Journal of Play Therapy. Published online 2007:160-175. doi:10.1037/1555-6822.214.171.124