When children come into our care from hard places, whether as a newborn or an older child, they have experienced trauma. Our privilege as a parent is to walk with them through the healing that their hearts need. Is it easy? Absolutely not. However, shepherding a child in this process can be one of the most rewarding challenges in life. To give some practical reminders and actions for parents, we have put together the following list of ten ways parents can practically encourage healing in our children from hard places.
Help Your Child Feel Safe
- With words: Use a steady, reassuring tone as you verbally assure your child, “I’m right here with you. You’re safe with me.”
- With actions: Stay close by your child; ask if he wants to hold hands.
- With preparedness: Prepare your child for new environments by telling her who will be there, what will happen, what is expected of her, and what to do if she feels uncomfortable.
- With protection: Stay away from environments that require more than your child is ready to handle. For example, consider how high-sensory input places like a movie theater, a theme park, a big party, or church may impact your child. He might require more time to be comfortable in such environments.
Connect with Your Child
- Healing takes place within relationships because that is where many children experienced trauma. Make connection to your child a priority with your time and energy, even if it means laundry isn’t folded or dust builds up.
- Build trust by doing what you say you will do. Keep your word.
- Find something you and your child enjoy doing together and do it.
- In discipline, make connection a primary goal
- Praise more than you correct. Experts recommend giving six praises for every correction.
- Praise for real things, even if you have to be creative and intentional. Children can tell when you are making things up, so look for real ways to encourage. It could be a praise anywhere from “What a great way to share with your brother!” to “Thank you for helping me keep you safe by buckling your seatbelt.”
- Praise for things they do well and for their character. Examples include “I like how you colored with such bright colors!” and “I know it was hard to tell the truth about that; I’m so proud of you!”
- Be slow to anger. Remind yourself of the difficult circumstances your child has been through and the reasons behind any unhealthy behaviors.
- Don’t expect gratitude from your child; love him without needing or asking for anything back.
- Giving and receiving affection in a healthy way will likely take time. Teach it; model it; but don’t require it. For example, ask your child’s permission to give a hug; if they resist, look for a compromise like a high five. Intervene if a family member, friend, or stranger asks for affection.
Be Explicit in Communication
- Going back to preparing your child, be sure to explain everything from the rules of the house and how to act in a grocery store to who is a friend and who is a stranger.
- Role play situations with your child so you can help her practice how to act and interact in various circumstances.
- Teaching and practicing set your child up for success, which makes your child feel great and reduces anxiety.
Teach them their Value
- When appropriate, remind your child that the circumstances of his life are not his fault.
- Ensure your child knows she is loved and valued regardless of her behavior.
- Say things like “I like you because you are mine,” “You are precious,” “You’re daddy’s princess,” “God has a purpose for your life,” and “I love you no matter what.”
- Avoid shaming them when they mess up. Patiently teach them the correct way and give them a chance to have a redo instead of a lecture and a consequence.
Set them up for Success
- Consider your child’s history and emotional maturity as you make decisions about any situation. Communicate fully about what she can expect.
- Set realistic goals you know he can meet; praise him for his success over and over; then, slowly raise your expectations over time.
- Again, create and look for opportunities to praise and encourage your child.
- A predictable schedule will help your child feel safe and in control.
- Make your child aware of your day’s activities. A visual or written schedule can serve as a reminder for her throughout the day.
- Prepare your child when changes in the schedule occur, and communicate clearly what you will do if something changes.
- Alert your child to transitions from one part of the schedule to another. Giving a few minutes notice or setting a timer prior to change can aid in transition.
- When appropriate, give your child control of situations by giving him choices of what to do or how to do it. For example, “Would you like a banana or yogurt for snack?”
- Children may feel the need to take control based on their past experiences. This could lead to behaviors like hoarding food or stealing. You may find that giving control by providing a basket of snacks to keep in her room gives the sense of safety she needs.
- In discipline, give options. For example, “Would you like to put your coat on yourself or have me do it?”
- Reinforce the truth that you, as his parents, will take care of him—always.
- Help children make decisions by explaining what will happen with each option. Remind them that the second option may be possible at a later date, when applicable. Affirm the decision they make.
Let them talk
- Encourage children to use their words to tell you how they are feeling or what they need.
- Allow children the freedom to express emotions and to talk respectfully about them.
- Listen to your child’s story without changing it.
- Don’t overreact when your child expresses difficult things; remind them that they are safe and loved with you and that you are sad about hard things that happened to them.
- Share age-appropriate, true information about your child’s history.