How to Discipline a Child Who Has Experienced Trauma

Young mother with child in an open adoption

Often, crime-and-punishment style discipline focuses only on the bad behavior, not on the underlying cause. It is important to focus not on what your child did, but on why they did it. Children who have experienced trauma often have a hard time stating their needs or trusting that their needs will be met. 

Here are five tips for resolving conflict with your child in a loving and supportive manner. 

Take a Time-in

The trouble with traditional time-outs is that many children will disassociate during the time out. Children who have experienced trauma are particularly sensitive to sensory deprivation. A time-out can be a maddening experience. Instead, consider a time-in.

A time-in is a pause taken by parent and child together. Hold your child in your arms or sit them in front of you, making eye contact and holding hands. Tell your child that the two of you must calm down and think about what happened. Slowly count together, backward from ten, focusing on slow, even breaths. If your child needs to cry, offer comfort, but keep them with you. Repeat as needed until your child is able to calmly discuss what happened and why you needed to take a time-in. 

Imagine your child is fighting with their sibling. In the heat of the moment, they exhibit violent behavior, like hair pulling or hitting. This is a good time for a time-in. This method uses empathy and understanding rather than simply punishing and isolating your child. It can help you calm down, too. 

Write “I feel” statements

A great way to highlight why the behavior is destructive is to write or say I feel statements.

Start with their feelings, and then express your feelings. For example, your child might say “When you take away my Nintendo Switch, I feel bored and mad. I feel like I should get to play more.” 

Then, tell your child how you feel. For example, “I feel like you are playing Nintendo Switch instead of working on your homework, and your homework isn’t getting finished. I feel like, as your parent, it is my responsibility to limit how much time you spend playing.” 

It is helpful to you and your child to establish that their feelings are valid, even if their desires are not going to be met the way they’d like. 

Boil it Down

Imagine your child stole money from your purse. Before punishing your child, sit them down and ask them why they took the money. What did they want to buy? By discussing what they hoped to accomplish with bad behavior, like stealing, you may discover that your child was responding to a perceived need. 

Discuss with your child how they might have gotten that need met differently. If the item was a necessity, reassure them you will take care of their needs. If it was a toy or treat, discuss other ways they can earn a treat or an allowance.

Ask For Their Help

Often, children feel as though they are not being given enough agency over their life. By giving your child some responsibility, you may see their better nature emerge. 

When possible, ask your child to form a plan with you. For instance, if chores are not getting done, ask your child how they would manage the house if they were in charge. 

Be sure to tell them what needs to be done, but be open to their ideas of how to do those things. You might be pleasantly surprised to hear how willing to help your child is if you allow them to choose certain preferred chores, or set up a schedule! 

By asking for their input and negotiating the details, your child has the chance to feel like you are tackling necessary business together as a team, rather than that you are telling them what to do. 

Let the Good Outweigh the Bad

My final tip is to keep in mind that the positive should always outweigh the negative. When talking to your child, try to keep the ratio of good to bad 5:1. That means, for every 1 negative thing you need to say to your child, say 5 positive things. 

As parents, we need to say “no” a lot! But in front of and behind every ‘no’ should be several “yeses”. Remember to compliment your child for positive behavior whenever you can. That makes criticism much easier to hear.

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