By Beth Tyson, MA - Childhood Trauma Consultant
Does your child refuse to leave the playground or other locations without a meltdown? Transitions between activities are tough for toddlers and preschoolers, but especially for those children who have experienced trauma and loss.
Children who have experienced traumatic changes in their life like divorce or removal from parents will see ending enjoyable activities as yet another loss. At the same time, they are constantly assessing their level of security, and boundary-pushing is a quick way to determine how safe they are. For example, if you get angry and scare the child because they won't leave the playground, you reinforce the belief that they are not safe with you.
Gentle, conscious, and empathic parenting styles typically work best for children with trauma. Because childhood trauma breaks their trust at a foundational level and changes the way the brain responds to perceived threats, they need to test people repeatedly to develop the belief that they are safe. This behavior is adaptive and does not mean there is anything wrong with the child. On the contrary, it rightfully protects the child from a world that feels scary and uncertain to them.
While children who have a history of trauma need us to be loving, they also require us to be confident and firm about our decisions to feel secure. Boundary-pushing during transitions between activities is also a developmental learning experience for the child. Boundary-pushing teaches the child how much control she has and whether or not she can trust your word.
With any challenging behavior our children are asking the question, can I trust you? That is why it can be detrimental to give in and go too easy on a child when they push back on you. There's a sweet spot where the parent is both empathetic and strong for the child. As caregivers, we can be too soft with our boundaries because of our pity for the child. But, children need us to be firm and stick to our word to rebuild a sense of trust in the world around them.
Why transitions induce tantrums in children impacted by trauma:
Ending activities triggers feelings of loss when they've already lost so much.
Leaving can feel like giving up control, and they've learned having control is critical to staying safe.
It becomes an opportunity to test the caregiver's word.
It is an opportunity to create conflict and chaos, which is familiar in their life. For children, anything familiar feels safe, even if it's negative
It creates emotional distance between them and others. Emotional closeness can feel scary to children who experienced abuse and neglect by those supposed to love them.
It's important to remember that transitions are difficult for all young children, but you can learn skills to make the process an opportunity for connection instead of frustration.
To learn effective skills to help your child through transitions without meltdowns please read the full article I contributed to on Care.com.
If you appreciate what you've learned in this article, please join us in the Facebook group Emotiminds where I share more tips and resources for families impacted by trauma.
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Beth Tyson, MA is a psychotherapist, childhood trauma consultant, and author of A Grandfamily for Sullivan. She has several years of experience as a mental health clinician and as a co-instructor in the graduate program for counseling psychology at Eastern University. Beth specializes in training organizations about how to prevent and heal trauma.