Before I was a mom, I was a teacher. Behavior management was my thing. I was solidly convinced that I could reward or consequence any child into appropriate behavior if I tried hard enough. Then I became a foster parent and met kids from hard places (who had, in retrospect, surely been in my classes all along). Rewards and consequences didn’t work. Sticker charts didn’t work. They would sabotage any attempt at “earning” a privilege or special outing.
So, I started reading everything I could get my hands on about foster care, adoption, early trauma and brain development. I learned that much of what looked like willfulness in kids from hard places was actually dysregulation. It was their brain freezing or fighting or fleeing because it was terrified. It was a literal survival mechanism that they believed kept them alive in an unsafe situation. Knowing this gave me some empathy, but dealing with it on a daily basis was frustrating and exhausting. Here are a few of the things that helped me along the way:
I know this is infinitely easier to say than to do. I lived this. In fact, at one point, I lived this every single day for five months. But it is so important. Make sure that everyone is safe, and hunker down to ride out the storm. I literally repeat something like, “He is not giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time,” or “I did not cause this. I am helping to heal it,” to myself again and again. Keep your head. One dysregulated person in the house is enough.
In the heat of the moment, it’s so easy to promise or threaten things that you can never really make happen (especially if you are in a public place and feeling embarrassed on top of the frustration and exhaustion). Not only does this rarely de-escalate a meltdown, it sets you up for failure when you have to enforce consequences that weren’t well thought out (or choose not to enforce consequences that you promised in a tense moment). One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve gotten as a parent is that, especially for older kids, consequences don’t have to be immediate. Take your time. Let the situation resolve. And then think about your next course of action.
Ask for help if you need it
This is crucial. Call your agency and see if there are respite options available. Tap into your support network and line up a day (or night or weekend) away. I know this might not feel like a way to promote bonding with your child, but the truth is that sometimes a minute apart is exactly what you both need. Find an adoption competent therapist. I cannot even begin to tell you how helpful this was for me! You are not alone. Call in the reinforcements.
Have fun independent of behavior
When meltdowns are frequent and violent, it’s tough to imagine doing anything fun with your child. It feels like you might somehow be rewarding negative behavior. But, here’s the thing: Good memories are built from spending happy time together. Connection is built over ice cream and painting and board games and bike rides and whatever else your family enjoys. When dysregulation was common in my house but I still wanted to bond and connect, I would say, “I’m feeling nice. Let’s go to the movies (or whatever).” This way it felt clear that the fun was not a reward for difficult behavior, but a thing that families do together.
Keep the faith
Hang in there. Dealing with meltdowns and explosive behavior is tough, but there is hope. Even the most dysregulated kids can make progress toward connection. It may be slow. It will be imperfect. It may require resources outside of your family. This does NOT mean that you are not a good parent—it means that you are a smart enough parent to recognize what you cannot handle alone.
Keep loving. Keep connecting. Keep asking for help when you need it. And celebrate your family’s success—every little bit of it.