Why 'All Kids Do That' Doesn't Apply to My Kids Who Have Experienced Trauma


If you have a child with trauma issues, I’m sure your well-meaning friends and family members have asked you at least a million times: “What’s the big deal? All kids do that!”

They’re not wrong.

Sure, lots of kids do lie, talk a lot, play too rough, fight with their siblings and talk back. Kids have illogical reasoning and get angry when their parents don’t understand. Yes, all kids do things that make us mad, that scare us, that irritate us. Some kids engage in these behaviors daily just because they’re kids. But kids with trauma behaviors don’t engage in “normal negative behavior” because their trauma responses take “normal negative behaviors” into scary movie territory.

In the first video of Heather Forbes’s online parenting course, she says something I want you to memorize, repeat and utilize when people give you that look. You know the look. The one that says, “Your kids are fine!” Oh, I hate that look.

Forbes says something along the lines of: My child’s behaviors are not the concern, but rather the intensity, the frequency and the duration of the behaviors.

I’ll use my youngest’s tantrums to illustrate what I’m talking about here.

It’s normal for young kids to have tantrums. But for the average 4-year-old, this tantrum lasts five minutes.

Now, I don’t want to dismiss the feelings of parents whose children engage in “normal” fit-throwing behavior, because fits are annoying and exasperating. They test the limits of even the most saintly, with-it parent. I know even “normal” tantrums can be absolutely horrible. But kids with traumatic pasts engage in completely different tantrum behavior. Unless they’ve healed through therapeutic interventions, children who have experienced trauma do not engage in “normal” fit-throwing behavior. The tantrums of my children who have been traumatized do not last for five minutes. They don’t happen “a few times a week.” They aren’t merely expressions of frustration, anger, sadness or exhaustion. They’re unpredictable and are not easy to avoid with small modifications in routine or expectations. They aren’t easily managed by utilizing traditional techniques such as ignoring the behavior or putting the kids in time-out.

No. Trauma-tantrums are something else entirely. My little one once had a meltdown that lasted for five days. That is, of course, an extreme example and thankfully has not happened since, but my youngest’s meltdowns used to be constant and all-consuming. Before we started him at his behavioral therapy program, his meltdowns occurred daily and lasted for at least two hours, but more often lasted four hours. Every day.

And they were — and still are — violent. My husband and I have barricaded ourselves in the room with him, keeping him away from his sisters and the cat. He has gouged holes into the walls of his room by throwing things. Countless toys have fallen victim, and I’ve been physically hurt on a small number of occasions.

The craziest thing about his fits, though, is that no matter what we do to avoid or calm his fits of absolutely terrifying anger and sadness and anxiety, nothing really works. Nothing. We’ve tried several methods of dealing with his meltdowns and have even gone so far as to commit the ultimate parenting faux pas and given him what we thought he wanted. But even acquiescing just intensified his rage.

If you’re parenting a child with trauma-related behavior issues, you know the truth in what I’m about to say:

The behaviors that consume so much of our lives are not normal.

I want readers who support a friend or family member who parents a child who has experienced trauma to know that we trauma-mamas-and-papas understand you have the best intentions in mind when you say things like, “Oh, that’s normal,” or, “Yeah, my kid does that, too!” or “When my kid does that, I do this and it works every time.” However, those words, earnestly said in an attempt to assist a distressed loved one are more likely to frustrate the very person you want to help.

That’s not an attempt to discourage you from offering up tips to parents like me and my husband. Some traditional parenting advice does work well with our children and sometimes we are open to suggestions. However, if you have never raised a child with trauma issues and want to sympathize, empathize and advise a trauma parent, you should ask them the following question before you respond: “Do you want my advice, or do you just want me to listen?”

Because some days, when I call my mom or my friends ranting that my son threw a car seat at me while I was driving or how my middle child manipulated a reward system I thought was working, I don’t want advice, especially if I’m calling shortly after the upsetting event took place. I just want to talk about it, get it out and hear, “Wow, that sucks! What did you do?”

Other days, usually after I’ve calmed down of course, I’m completely open to the advice of others because I know my fellow parents know their stuff, whether or not they are raising neuro-typical children, physically disabled children or children with mental issues.

So, bottom line: Kids with trauma issues may seem like perfectly normal kiddos with no issues. They may even be completely angelic in your presence if you don’t interact with them frequently. You might question the sanity of parents who seem hostile or angry when they talk about or interact with their kids. However, please recognize the validity of their parents’ concerns, because while the specific behavior may be “normal,” the intensity, frequency and duration of that behavior is not. Please keep this in mind if you want to help or advise a trauma parent.

Sarah Neal and her family outside. She and her husband kiss, and her kids have their hands over their eyes.
Sarah and her family.

Follow this journey on Trauma Mama Drama.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold his misconception? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

 

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