Caring for Traumatized Kids: How to Be an Empathy Ninja

This post is for all of us adults who support traumatized children. Traumatized kids are not always the sad, lonely kids with pleading eyes and hearts ready to accept our tender loving care! Often traumatized kids push us away with a ferocity only paralleled by their need. They push us away with behaviors that disgust, terrify, enrage, sadden or hurt us. Whether you're a parent, teacher, therapist, coach, or dance teacher, at least one these kids have crossed your path.

These children can have baffling behaviors: defiance, destruction, angry outbursts, tearful meltdowns, violence, disrespect for boundaries of any kind. I can walk into any classroom and pick these kids out easily with a quick visual scan. The dilated eyes, the rapid breathing, the wary hypervigilance. If the teacher has a "card" system to track behavior, their card is always red.  

In order to build a relationship with a child like this, to care for a child like this, it takes an Empathy Ninja. It is so easy, when encountered by a child with wild behaviors, to think that he or she is malicious, manipulative, and mean. But this frame of mind- true or not- keeps children feeling unheard, unloved, and hopeless about change. This only perpetuates mistrust and dysfunction. 

Empathy is something we can cultivate and protect, even in the hard times. Here are 5 major empathy savers (I will use female pronouns for convenience):


1. Remember she is scared.

Again, I want to validate just how easy it can be to believe that your child is engaging in these hurtful behaviors because she's angry, vindictive and wants to hurt you. (In fact, if you ask her, she may even confirm this.)

However, when a child has a history of trauma, manipulation and control may have become survival mechanisms. She had to be in control of the adults around her in order to get her basic needs met or to avoid physical danger. Now, it's become the only way for her to feel safe. 

Children do not act in these vile ways because they are inherently evil. Children act out when they do not feel safe or when their needs aren't being met. Some children don't know how to feel safe, even when the environment around them is safe. They have acclimated past environments of chaos and danger and continue to see chaos and danger at every turn. They have acclimated to danger during key windows of brain development. So understandably, these kids have a great deal of trouble trusting that they are really safe and that their needs will be met consistently. They have survived months or years of inconsistent care, at the times when their development was most vulnerable.

2. Assume she is trying her best.

The basic issue here is "can't or won't?" A child may be 12, 16 or 18 years old, but when there is a history of profound trauma, abuse or neglect, often their social or emotional age is much, much younger. In some moments, she may have the emotional skill set of a much younger child: Her brain chemistry and structure was changed by the trauma she endured.

When a child goes through trauma, the whole system works on survival, NOT on complex growth or development. This means that parts of development will likely be stunted. Sometimes a child simply CANNOT meet expectations assigned to same-age peers. She is not trying to be willful or disobedient: Her impulse control is simply lagging. (Or her frustration tolerance, ability to regulate emotion, to be flexible, to problem-solve, her language abilities, her social skills, etc.) It's so important to remember that all these areas can lag behind when there is a history of trauma.

If it seems like your child has these skills in other parts of her life or at other times, again I ask: Is it that she won't, or she can't in this unique scenario? Maybe her anxiety creates an insurmountable obstacle for her when there is any slight change in routine. Maybe she is particularly fragile today because she didn't get a good night's sleep or she's hungry. Always assume that she's trying his best!

3. Envision a positive future for her.

When you spend a great deal of time with a traumatized child who acts out, it can become very scary to think about the future. We see a child who steals, lies, and hits in anger at 10, and we foresee an adulthood spent in prison. We see a child who engages in behaviors that hurt and sadden others, and we foresee an isolated adult without any healthy relationships. It can be very frightening indeed. 

But the truth is that children grow as we work with them, as we learn to understand their cues, meet their needs consistently, and provide them with emotional and physical safety. Change is possible for even the most psychologically battered children. 

And, as long as we focus on what could be, instead of what is, our clarity about the present will be clouded. Our ability to provide appropriate discipline for a child will be compromised if it comes out of terror for her potentially terrible future, rather than what she has done in the present. If we focus on the worst case scenario for our growing child, she will sense our hopelessness and it will compound her own feeling of hopelessness. We must remain hopeful and positive about her future!

4. Help her try again and find success.

Now I'm going to really confuse you, dear reader. After all that talk about needing to understand and not overreact to bad behaviors, I'm going to now tell you that it's also important not to ignore bad behaviors. We need to help hold our children accountable and support growth for them, while at the same time honoring their developmental stage. We need to stop offering challenges they can never be successful with, but we still need to offer challenges!

For example, consider a 10 year old with the emotional regulation skills of a 4 year old. When she throws a fit about something and literally throws something, we can understand that she isn't very skillful yet with managing her impulses when she overwhelmed with anger. We can then calmly guide her toward a more positive way of expressing the anger, and hold her accountable to "trying again." Re-dos, try-agains, or do-overs are a great way to teach new skills through practice. Practice, practice, practice: this is what creates new skill sets.

5.  Focus on her strengths.

When you are constantly feeling beat up by your little one, it can be hard to see her strengths and skills. We feel broken down, exhausted, hurt and annoyed by the antics. That's when we start to lose sight of the gifts.

But it's so important not to lose sight of these! These gifts will be assets in her life, the things that help keep her afloat during tough times. Her gifts may evolve into a career or help her maintain friendships that would otherwise falter. We need to nourish and protect these. We need to invest time, energy, focus and money into strengthening these.

The self-fulfilling prophecy also rings true here. Kids will grow into the identities given to them by the most important adults in their lives. How we "see" our children matters so, so much. It very much shapes who they will become. Focusing on what is right with our kids will feed a more positive self-image for them. 


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Danielle Maxon is a child therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the State of North Carolina. She has been strengthening families in North Carolina since 2011. In August of 2015 she created her private practice, Under Wing Therapeutic Services, PLLC, which offers parent-child play therapy, parenting support and individual counseling for children under 12. Danielle specializes in the treatment of complex trauma, including profound neglect, orphanage experiences and foster care. She especially loves helping defiant, aggressive little ones and exasperated parents.