“Where am I in my window?” How to become a trauma-informed parent

By: Beth Barto, Director of Quality Assurance

Have you ever had a poor parenting moment when you needed to respond to your child’s need but instead took the easier road because of exhaustion?  While parenting is the most important role in the world it can also be highly stressful.  The stress of the job is compounded when parenting a child who has experienced trauma.  For children who have not experienced layers of adversity your poor ‘tuning in’ moment will be viewed as a lapse in judgment and be forgotten in a matter of minutes. However, for a child who has experienced chronic stress, a parent who does not tune in or understand the big feelings under the big behaviors can be viewed as a threat in the storybook of fears developed through their experiences.   

Children who have experienced layers of adversity often have an overactive alarm system.  All humans have a built-in alarm system critical for our survival.  The alarm system signals us when we might be in danger.  Sometimes there can be false alarms.  False alarms happen when something we see, feel or hear reminds us of a time when we needed to be alert for danger.  Reminders can come in the form of people, places, smells, sounds, touch, taste and certain emotions. False alarms can be a way of being for children who have experienced chronic trauma.  Being hypervigilent of situations can also be exhausting for children and they can miss out on important developmental milestones as a result.

So, what can parents do to help?  Let us consider using ‘planned ignoring’ as an intervention for poor behavior.  This type of strategy can be useful for many typically developing children and shift a child’s attention seeking behavior.  However, using planned ignoring as an intervention for a neglected child can be a reminder of past abandonment.  This important behavioral management skill can trigger the false alarm and a child impacted by chronic adversity can fill up with anger and demonstrate aggressive behaviors.  Or, some children may shut down and go into their own inner world.  All of these responses are ways children deal when they think something is dangerous.  As parents it is important for us to understand that normal stress can trigger the false alarm and send a child to the extreme of rage or the extreme of numbing.  This is the child’s automatic survival response.  The “Window of Tolerance” (Ogden, et al. (2006); Siegel, 1999) is the optimal zone of energy where we are able to manage and thrive in every-day life.

The goal is to be able to be calm and peaceful and understand what events trigger the stress response.  In trauma-informed parenting the parent is aware of where they are in their window in response to a child’s behavior.  The parent understands that a child’s big behaviors are indicative of a false alarm and the behaviors tell a story of a child’s greatest fears.  The parent is able to take a step back and become curious not furious and respond to the need instead of the behavior. 

The main focus of trauma informed parenting is to reflect on one’s own state and become a detective of their child’s state of being.  In stressful situations it is important to exercise your “thinking” brain by asking questions of the situation.  When you notice concerning behavior, parents can step back and ask:

  • Where am I in my window? 
  • Am I calm and can I respond effectively? 
  • What can I do to become calm? 
  • Maybe I should breathe. Maybe I should think about what might be going on for my child. 
  • Where is my child in their window?
  • What is fueling their response? 
  • What is my child showing in their face, with their tone of voice in their approach and their mood? 
  • How do I let my child know that I understand them? 
  • What is the need the behavior is serving for my child?
  • What happened to activate the false alarm: change in routine, transition, loss of control, feelings of rejection, limit setting, loneliness, and sensory overload? 

Now that you have figured out what is going on you can have some great parenting moments.  Consider that the most important action as a parent is to bear a child’s pain by being there, offering support, and helping children name, understand and manage their feelings.  Consider being a reflective listener. 

Remember that for a child with a false alarm the stress they are going through will feel extreme even though the casual observer will think they are over-reacting.  Do not try to “change” the child’s feelings. The child will feel how they feel.  Use eye contact; nod your head, and respond verbally.  Do not interrupt or take over the conversation.  Think about a time when you wanted to be heard and respond respectfully.  Reflect back what you hear the child say and add that you can tell the situation is hard for them.  Reflect back the child’s feeling but always ask the child if you got their feeling right. If you did not get the feeling right, apologize for your error and just name what you see.  Don’t jump to problem solving.  Validate the feelings and situation first, then help your child come up with the solutions. 

A parent who is able to reflect on their own state in relation to the window will become an emotional container for their child. Please remember that we all have poor parenting moments just remember you can always go back when life is calmer and try again. 

For more resources on parenting a child with trauma go to: http://www.nctsn.org/resources/audiences/parents-caregivers

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