Children react differently to triggers depending on their history, personality, and environment. While one child might lash out in rage, or runoff, another might completely shut down (fight, flight, freeze). A child rarely grasps that their emotional reaction is rooted in past experiences, particularly children who have grown up in a toxic environment as they think it’s the ‘norm’. When a trigger elicits a feeling of threat, their survival brain kicks in and responses can be extreme. Often, you’ll realize the child is no longer listening to what you are saying and this can lead to increased frustration or heightened response. Children have much less capacity to reason than an adult due to the frontal lobe (what I call the ‘thinking brain’) not ‘fully’ developing until about age 25. In addition, when the survival brain kicks in, that part of the brain often becomes inaccessible. You might have experienced that yourself when in a rage you say something to a loved one you later regret or break something of value. It’s the reactions that lead us to say “What WERE you thinking?!”. The problem is: they aren’t. Trying to reason with a triggered child is like trying to get online with no internet access- it doesn’t work. We first have to get their frontal lobe back online, which requires regulation. But just like oxygen masks on a plane in an emergency, you must put yours on first before helping the child. A dysregulated adult cannot regulate a dysregulated child.
Ask yourself “what am I feeling?”. Address your body’s response before addressing the child. Take a deep breath, slow down, and bring yourself to the present moment. Do not allow your thoughts to run to every past incident in which this child lost their temper, or had an outburst, etc, or run to the future where you are absolutely certain they will end up in jail, fail school, not be able to hold a job, or whatever future fear your mind might bring up. Stay in the present, as that is the ONLY place you have control. Once you are in a regulated state, observe the child’s response and identify factors that might be triggering them, including assessing the environment. If others are present, you might ask them to leave, or find a place you can go to with the child away from observers. Work collaboratively to help the child regulate (some might need space/silence, while others might engage in breathwork or might need a distraction to focus on). Do NOT rush the process. Allow time for them to regulate. You can bring awareness by sharing observations (I can see your fists are tight, you are pacing, your voice is raised, etc), and explore guiding them to a calmer state. Sometimes all we can do is model- take some deep breaths, or start grounding by looking around and exploring with senses (smell the air, touch the wall, pop gum or candy in your mouth and offer them a piece, etc). We’ve got something called “mirror neurons” that cause others to mimic behaviors, like when you see someone yawn. So by relaxing your own body and taking deep breaths, you can guide them indirectly. Avoid labeling behaviors as ‘disrespectful’, rather help identify emotions underneath – don’t judge!
Use a collaborative approach to identify what the child needs or wants. This does not always happen right away- especially when emotions are high, sometimes both adults and children need some time to think before being able to express thoughts. It’s ok to take a few hours if needed- sometimes you can’t effectively address the problem until the next day. Once you’ve heard their side, identify your concerns if you have any, and work with them to come up with a plan to address the issue. Make sure the plan always has room for development- you do not want to pin yourself into a corner. A collaborative approach can help the child feel some sense of control, which reduces the chance of reactivity. Of course, if the situation ever presents a safety risk, you might need to take a more assertive stance.
Crisis provides an opportunity for us to learn and grow. Once you’ve come to an agreement, and everyone is calm, take time to process what happened. Normalize struggles and help the child become curious about their responses to triggers and explore ways to help them stay in control. You can find many ideas online with a simple search. If they are hesitant or guarded, you may need to work on the relationship. Make time to spend with them doing things that are enjoyable. NEVER make connection time something to be ‘earned’, rather something you give freely and consistently. Relaxation and leisure time is essential in maintaining mental health. By learning to trust others in safe relationships, children learn to trust themselves. And of course, if your child has unresolved trauma hindering progress, refer to a professional.
Estefana Johnson has worked in the mental health field for over 18 years. She has worked with a variety of populations from at-risk youth in a residential setting, outpatient treatment to discharge planning in a hospital setting.
Estefana is a Certified Master Accelerated Resolution Therapist and Certified National ART Trainer, who is currently practicing at Lighthouse Psychiatry. Estefana also serves as a Board member and is the Clinical Director for ASA Now, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing support, advocacy, and assistance to children who have experienced foster care and their families. She provides consultation for providers, training for foster families, and has presented at multiple conferences.