Trauma-Driven Behavior: Resilience and Hope

Note: The information shared in this post is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute professional care. Professional care can only be delivered in professional setting between a therapist and a client or a client system, after sufficient evaluation and development of a treatment plan. If you are dealing with challenging life situations, please seek a referral for professional care from your family physician.

A grandparent recently wrote in:

"Hi! We very recently became legal guardians of our 5 year old grandson. He has spent every weekend since birth with us but when mom went to jail in January, he came here full time. Mom is now out of jail but can't handle all of her kids so asked us to keep our grandson with us. He visits her two nights a week. He doesn't understand why he can't be with mom and has been acting out. His dad, our son, has been around a lot more but isn't prepared to be a full time parent economically or otherwise either. Our grandson’s teacher sent us to your site and said you had some great info. After digging around a bit, I just don't know where to start. Our situation seems to flow between several different topics. Any suggestions on a good starting point for us? Thank you! I would very much appreciate your addressing the issue on your blog! The information I have gleaned from your site and blog has been excellent. If you need any other info, please don't hesitate to call or email. Thank you so much Wendy."
             ~Grandparent providing kinship care

Dear grandparent,

Thank you for being there for your grandchild. 

You are not alone. With nearly 2.5 million children in kinship care, these types of arrangements are more prevalent than you may think. I have been honored to work with multiple families where grandparents are raising grandchildren.

There are no easy answers to the complexities that comprise kinship care, particularly in the situation for which you are seeking assistance.  There are multiple issues that contribute to what your grandson is likely experiencing now. 

Relational Trauma

First and foremost, we need to pay attention to and honor the fact that this young child has experienced a relational trauma. In its simplest terms, a relational trauma is much like it sounds. For our purposes, a traumatic experience has unfolded in the context of a primary attachment relationship. What comprises relational trauma is as varied as families are themselves.  In some cases, it may be abuse, neglect, emotional or physical abandonment and more. I've see this put very eloquently in one post from Empowered to Connect:
"No child becomes available for adoption or enters foster care unless something has gone wrong, terribly so.  Those who gave life to this child, those who were supposed to take care of him, those who were supposed to be there to protect him, teach him, and support him either couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t.  And so one of the most foundational and important of all earthly relationships – that of parent and child – was broken or severed."
Magical Thinking and More

Granted, there are always extenuating circumstances that lead to children not being able to be with their biological parents, but when an attachment relationship has been formed and then it is severed or damaged, we cannot expect that children will not have a reaction to it. In your grandson's case, it may be that the child sees his biological mom two nights a week, but this still constitutes a break from the child's prior routine and life. It still registers as an abandonment to his little heart and soul. The fact that other children remain with their biological mom may further complicate the situation for this child. Particularly at this age, when egocentricity and magical thinking lead children into thinking that events around them happen because of them. "If I were smarter, better looking, happier, better behaved, worthy, special, mom wouldn't have to get in trouble and go away." Not being able to be with mom once she was released from jail may reinforce this kind of thinking. These are not sentiments the child will consciously be able to verbalize, but they are underlying forces that may fuel some of the behavior you are seeing and will need to be addressed professionally. Additionally, there may be circumstances and situations this child has been exposed to prior to mom's incarceration that contribute to a series of multiple traumas this child may have been exposed to.

Don't Go It Alone

This is not something you can be expected to handle on your own and not something the child will simply outgrow. The behavior is the outgrowth of the emotional pain that bubbles beneath the surface. My recommendation is that you start with your family physician and ask for a good referral to an early childhood clinician who is qualified and licensed and also understands attachment and trauma. This can go a long way towards helping your grandson process his overwhelming and difficult feelings.

Trauma Triggers

Children experiencing relational trauma may be triggered by seemingly innocuous stimuli and events that make absolutely no sense to observers. These are called trauma triggers and can be a sound, a smell, an experience, a song, etc.  It is important to know that these children need empathy and support to work through these BIG feelings. A child cannot be "talked out of" or "punished out of" these acting out behaviors. 

Building in Resilience

Children can heal, and there are many ways to promote resilience in traumatized children. A qualified clinician can be a major support to both the child and the caregiver.  A thorough evaluation will be conducted to determine what will best support this child and what interventions will be most meaningful.

Resources That Can Help

One thing you will want to do at home is help your grandson process feelings. That will go a long way towards supporting him in coping. Processing feelings as they arise is just one part of the equation. A therapist can help the child with some of the deeper issues that are troubling to the child with some specific interventions aimed at ameliorating trauma. Here are some resources you can find on our blog to help with BIG feelings at home:

(This links to many more posts on helping kids deal with feelings. Poke around a bit.)

Angry Kids: Over a Dozen Ways to Help
(This also links to many more posts.)

In Closing

This is an oversimplified response to a challenging life circumstance, but it is a start. I would urge you to get more support and assistance to help this child cope with the changes in his life, as well as the circumstances that have led up to it. 

All good wishes to you and your grandson. 

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned, because we'll give you some more resources in general for grandparents who are parenting their grandchildren in our next post. 

More Help

You may also wish to check out BLOOM: 50 Things to Say, Think and Do with Anxious, Angry and Over-the-Top Kids. In BLOOM, we have an entire chapter dedicated specifically to traumatized children and more tips about how to help them thrive.

Bloom gives you a proven approach to help work around the defensive brain, teach skill-building and coping and help children move towards prosocial behavior more quickly than punishment ever could. Filled with hundreds of printable mantras that calm the emotional brain and set the stage for stronger relationships and improved behavior. Here's one small example:

When you combine what you say with the powerful thinking and doing strategies, you are well on your way to helping kids become the best version of themselves. Best of all, you'll do it while maintaining your own composure and balance. You are going to love the change it brings to your family! Find it HERE!

To help kids learn relaxation and mindfulness, TRY THIS.

Hope is on the horizon.


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