Supporting Children

Part 1: What Is Trauma Responsive Parenting?

DR MONIA M. FITZGERALD & DR KIMBERLY SHIPMAN

11 October 2022  |   6 min read

Children and youth who have experienced stress and traumatic events that exceed their capacity to cope and thrive need the adults in their lives to respond with understanding, warmth, compassion, and support. Traumatic experiences often undermine a child’s or youth’s sense of safety, stability, and attachment. However, each child or youth responds differently to trauma and needs the adults around them to be attuned and responsive to their unique social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physical, and spiritual needs and strengths. A relationship with a supportive safe adult is one of the top resilience factors for children and youth. Research shows that just one supportive adult in a child’s life can make an immediate and long-lasting positive impact on children and youth health and resilience, even in the face of adversity, trauma, war, and disaster. Parents and caregivers can learn and practice specific skills and strategies that will build and strengthen their relationship with their child and their child’s ability to understand, accept, and regulate emotions.

Open, supportive communication between adults, and children and youth is the cornerstone of a safe supportive relationship. It increases the likelihood children and youth will seek help from adults in times of need and increases their safety. Parents benefit from tools to talk with children and youth about everyday life experiences (e.g., friends, school, hobbies), especially the challenges and difficult topics that arise in the family (e.g., divorce, incarceration, separation, loss, sudden family moves or changes) or community (e.g., violence, racial/religious tensions, household fires). These are the topics that parents often tiptoe around, avoid, and dismiss because they cause the parents themselves discomfort. They have uncertainty of how and what to say with children and youth and how to connect.

When talking about the tough stuff, don’t avoid it, don’t minimise it, don’t silver-line it. The following are skills and strategies that come from a trauma-responsive parenting program called Let’s Connect®, that can be helpful for parents when talking with their children:

Before talking about a difficult topic, first tune into you, your feelings and needs so you can be most effective, grounded, open and focused on your child’s experience.

One great strategy to help you be ready to talk with your child about the tough stuff is what we call in Let’s Connect® Hand-to-Heart 3 steps. This will help you tune into yourself, identify your own feelings and needs, and then be ready to reach out to your child to understand their feelings, perspectives, needs and experience. Each of the Hand to Heart three steps is paired with a physical gesture and breath. Here is how to try it.

1. Tune In (placing hand to heart) and silently ask “What am I feeling?”, “What do I need?” Take a few breaths here and tune in. This is a gesture of self-compassion and nurturance.

2. Reach Out (holding hands out with palms up) and silently ask self, “How is my child feeling?” “What is their experience and perspective?” “What are their needs?”

3. Connect (placing hands together) and silently ask self, “How does it feel when we are in connection?” “How can I meet my own needs and my child’s needs?”, “How can I connect and build our relationship?”

Next, apply these other skills and strategies from the Let’s Connect® programme described below, when talking to your child.

Before talking about a difficult topic, first tune into you, your feelings and needs so you can be most effective, grounded, open and focused on your child’s experience.

These tips are helpful for all interactions we have with children and youth but particularly important when we are talking about the tough stuff – topics that are often not addressed due to parents’ discomfort, not knowing what to say, or being afraid that bringing them up will be hard for the child. What we know is that children are thinking about these things whether we bring them up or not. When we are open to talking about difficult things, children feel supported and comfortable sharing other challenges as they come up throughout their life. Practice the skills above around less difficult topics to increase your comfort and readiness to talk about challenging children and youth, and family topics.

Remember that the most important thing you can do is share your supportive presence with your child. If you get stuck and are not sure what to say, just reflect their experience, thank them for sharing, and let them know how much you love them. If a conversation doesn’t go well, that is ok. You can always circle back to them and revisit the conversation when you are both ready. When adults circle back to reconnect, take responsibility, and apologise for their missteps (e.g., minimisation, criticism, jumping to problem solving), they model the healthy relationship skill of safe and restorative conflict resolution/repair. We hope it is now clear how emotion-focused, supportive communication skills are critical to trauma-responsive parenting.

Authors:
Monica M. Fitzgerald, Ph.D.
Kimberly Shipman, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologists & Developers of Let’s Connect®

Look out for our next article (Part 2) on how parents can create supportive environments for children.

For more information about Trauma-Responsive parenting and Let’s Connect®, visit our websites:
Let’sConnect.org
Center for Resilience + Well-Being
Let’s Connect-CRW

The authors are Clinical Psychologists at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Developers of Let’s Connect®. This article is contributed by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. It was first published on Trauma Network for Children’s Quick Bytes Newsletter and republished with permission.

The Stay Prepared – Trauma Network for Children (TNC) programme is a joint collaboration between KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) and Temasek Foundation. It aims to enhance the psychosocial capability of the Singapore community to support children and youth after crises or traumatic events. For more resources, visit the Trauma Network for Children Website at www.childtraumanetwork.sg.