Helping a child through a crisis
Susan Badeau writes and speaks extensively on topics related to children, particularly those with special needs. She has worked in child-serving fields as a professional and board member for 33 years, including adoption, foster care, juvenile justice, children’s mental health, and education.
Sue and her husband, Hector, are the lifetime parents of 22 children, two by birth and twenty adopted (three, with terminal illnesses, are now deceased). They have also served as foster parents for more than 50 children in three states, and as a host family for refugee youth.
This article is based on a workshop that Sue delivered at the 2021 North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) conference. We thank Sue for granting us permission to share her insights on children and crises.
A child’s crisis affects the entire family. But families don’t have to be swept along by crises. When armed with knowledge and understanding about trauma, families can understand the root causes of their children’s crises, respond to them, and help their children build skills for managing stress.
“It’s important to remember that behavior is the child’s language, and all behavior has a purpose,” Sue comments. For children who have experienced early trauma, behavior is connected with survival. Every child who has experienced the foster care system has lived through trauma, because of the separation from birth families. “Trauma changes the brain,” Sue says. “When children experience stress, they are more likely to go into survival mode.”
A child’s responses to stress or trauma can vary, but often include:
- Fight: hitting, refusal to do a task, arguing
- Flight: stealing, running away, or lying
- Freeze: crying, isolation, shutting down
- Flock: gathering at the scene of a trauma
- Flap/frenzy: unfocused energy and physical movement
- Fawn: overly compliant, people-pleasing, no expression of self-will or voice
Managing a crisis in the moment
When you understand a child’s behavior—and are self-aware about your own—you’re better equipped to keep calm during a crisis and de-escalate the situation. Sue emphasizes that planning ahead can help families prevent future crises.
When a child of any age is in the middle of a crisis, you should:
Tune out “shark music.” Shark music is the soundtrack of guilt, shame, or frustration that plays inside of your head when a child has a strong, negative emotional reaction. Shark music has origins in your own childhood and how your family responded to strong emotions or tantrums. Learn to recognize it and turn it down, so that you can focus on your child.
De-escalate. De-escalation strategies include giving a child some personal space but being close enough that they know you are available. You can help by keeping body language non-threatening. “If your child says provocative things—like ‘you’re not my real mom’—don’t respond,” Sue says. “Remember, it is not about you.”
Empathy first. “Use empathy before problem-solving,” Sue explains. Acknowledge and re-state the child’s emotions. The experience of being heard can help to calm a child, and problem-solving can wait until the child is out of a crisis.
After the crisis passes, Sue recommends giving everyone involved some space and time to calm down. After, everyone can reconnect through comforting activities, food, or movement–such as taking a walk or having a one-minute dance party.
It helps to talk about crises when both parent and child are calm. Look back at how the crisis started. Was there a specific trigger?
Know trauma triggers
Trauma triggers can be both situational and sensory. Situational triggers may include:
- Specific places
- Time of day, week, or year
- Certain tasks, activities, or events
- Disorder or disruption to routine
- Presence or absence of a specific person
- Being challenged or confronted
Sensory triggers may include:
- Certain sounds, unusual quiet or noise
- Specific sights, colors, visual stimuli
- Scents, odors, foods
- Hunger, thirst, exhaustion
- Sensory overload or deprivation
Recognizing triggers can help both parents and children become more self-aware. The goal isn’t to avoid every situation where a trigger might occur, but instead to have a plan for responding to challenging situations.
“It’s important to remember that behavior is the child’s language, and all behavior has a purpose.”—Sue Badeau
Make a plan
Working with a child on a crisis plan can give them a sense of control, and even prevent crises from happening in the first place. Sue encourages parents to think of the term SOS:
Slow the body and breathing. Parents and children can practice calming activities together (see self-soothing, below).
Orient. Where am I, and where is a safe person I can ask for help, whether I’m at home, at school, at an activity, or with friends? For example, ask a child to look around and note five things they see, four things they hear, and one thing they can safely touch.
Safety plan. The steps the child and family will take to keep the child safe. For example, taking a break to call or text a family member or other trusted person can help to prevent or respond to a crisis.
Besides making a crisis plan, other practices can help to prevent crises in the first place, by improving children’s ability to regulate their emotions.
Being able to calm yourself depends on physical changes. Sue recommends working with children on body awareness and asking questions about what the child’s body does when they are excited, scared, mad, or guilty. It’s helpful to develop some body-settling activities that children can use to defuse crises or to recover from them—and that families can do together. These could include breathing exercises, humming, singing, rocking, walking, yoga, or dancing—“even a one-minute dance party,” Sue adds.
“Your child can make a collage, chart, or even a list in their phone of the physical activities that help them to reduce stress,” Sue says.
Secure attachments can also counteract early trauma. “Building secure attachment includes engaging face-to-face with your child, sharing meals together, safe touches, and comforting your child when they are sad, lonely, frightened, or hurt,” Sue comments.
Sometimes, parents and children need additional support to navigate crises, beyond what can be done at home and in school.
Support beyond the family
Therapy, peer support groups, or respite can help families work through issues related to crisis and trauma. If a child is a danger to themselves or others, they may have to be placed away from the family to receive care. “You are still a family. Finding ways to be supportive and present to your child will help them through a difficult time,” Sue says.
Outside resources, such as therapists, should support your family’s resilience. A resilient family has hope, optimism, and shared values. Family members communicate about a wide range of feelings. The family is consistent enough to make children secure, but flexible enough to adapt as needed. Finally, the family members work together to solve problems.
With communication, collaboration, attachment, and empathy, parents can help children navigate challenges and learn skills that will serve them well as they grow up and become independent.