Tips for Parenting Trauma-Reactive Kids

While I could write for days on the topic of trauma in adoption and foster care kiddos, I’m writing this blog with the assumption that many parents already understand quite a bit about the basics of it. After all, adoptive parents receive a lot of training about “trauma.” You learn about brain development, definitions of trauma, how it impacts your kiddo and how to be aware of signs that suggest a bigger problem. The tougher part is actually PARENTING trauma-reactive kids on a daily basis, because it can be frustrating, exhausting and crushing to your self-esteem.

The first thing to remember (and the easiest thing to forget!) is not to take your child’s behaviors personally. If you child has experienced a traumatic history, their perception of the world is that it is an unsafe and inconsistent place, and that is what they expect will be reinforced with every relationship they have thereafter. Once you adopt your kiddo and they move into your home, those beliefs are no longer adaptive – such beliefs probably helped them survive their previous circumstances, and they may not be ready to give up that control that kept them going for so long. It’s important to keep in mind that all behaviors and symptoms are a way for a person of any age to manage internal distress, whether that be worry, fear, hurt or other uncomfortable feelings – so, you’re child’s trauma-reactive behaviors are usually a way for them to get rid of those uncomfortable feelings temporarily and help them feel in control of their environment.

Here are 7 tips to try when parenting your trauma-reactive child:

  1. SIMPLIFY. Many of the things that can trigger your child may be unknown and will require time and trial-and-error to identify. The less that is in their environment at any given time, the easier it will be for you to begin to recognize the patterns that seem to lead to triggering traumatic memories. This means cutting back on the number of toys in their rooms, the number of food options in the kitchen and the number of activities available for them to engage in.
  2. FIVE SENSES. Pay attention to your five senses – they will key you in on the things that may be triggering your child’s acting out behaviors. It may be obvious things, like seeing a violent scene in a movie or hearing a police siren. It may also be less obvious things, like the smell of a certain shampoo or food, or the feel of a certain type of cloth under their fingers. If you are in tune with your senses, you can help your child to become in tune with theirs, and be more aware of possible triggers.
  3. MASLOW’S HIERARCHY OF MOTIVATION. This is a great tool for putting things into perspective (see the link of the week below). We all have certain needs, and if foundational needs such as safety or hunger are not being met, then it is impossible for us to focus on higher functioning needs, such as building relationships or making good choices. When your child acts out, check in with yourself to decide which level of functioning your child perceives is being threatened – this will remind you not to try to moralize with them about making “good choices” or “getting rewards” when they are functioning at the level of physical safety, and just need to be held and comforted.
  4. ANGER. Remember that anger is rarely about being angry, but usually about feeling hurt or fearful. When your child acts out in anger, ask yourself what may be underlying that anger – are they afraid you will leave them or feeling hurt by perceived rejection? It’s easier for you to reflect that hurt or fear to your child as you talk through things, in order to role model for them how to identify such feelings before they turn into anger.
  5. BREVITY. When your child is emotionally dysregulated because they have been triggered by a traumatic memory, lectures and rationalizing will not get through. It is best to keep your tone neutral and firm, and offer very clear, very brief, very direct phrases for them to follow. For example, if your child does not want to leave the playground when it is time to go and begins screaming and crying, do not go into an explanation of why you need to leave and the things you need to do after you leave in order to get through all of the tasks in your day; instead, trying repeating in a calm tone until they hear you, “I know it makes you sad to leave your friends. For today, our time is up and we have to go home.” If you stick with this, you’re less likely to get into power struggles or bribery situations. While it may take awhile at first, eventually it will make things run much more smoothly.
  6. CONCRETE EXAMPLES. Your child is learning a whole new way of living and interacting once they come to you, and it may be difficult for them to understand what they are doing well or what is a poor choice, depending on the situation they’ve come from. Provide concrete examples of what you like or don’t like about their actions. Instead of, “Nice job!” or “Behave yourself!” try “Nice job putting your dishes in the sink right after dinner!” or “I would like you to make good choices at school today – make sure your hands are not used for hitting, but instead for raising to answer questions and writing your assignments and eating your lunch.”
  7. ADD INSTEAD OF SUBTRACT. Taking toys or electronics away from your child as a consequence is not likely to work when they child’s experience of the world is that nothing is ever permanent anyway. It is better to add chores or consequences than to take things away from them if you want them to understand the connection and care to change their behavior. For example, “Because you chose to continue watching TV when I told you that dinner was ready, you need to wash your own dinner dishes tonight because I have already finished the other dishes” is more effective than, “Because you chose to continue watching TV when I told you that dinner was ready, I’m going to take away your IPhone.”

These are just a few of the things you can begin to apply to your daily routine when parenting a trauma-reactive child. Feel free to contact me at or 303.522.3184 for more ideas and suggestions – I’ve got plenty to share, including singing when angry, making foot-rubs a consequence and the appropriate way to use “reverse psychology!”


About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.