PRESCHOOL BEHAVIOR MGMT
STRUCTURE, SUPPORT, ROUTINES, AND BOUNDARIES
Disclaimer: Most of this information is not my own, a lot is from my favorite attachment guru Katharine Leslie.
Structures and Support -
Children NEED structure and caring support to feel safe and start to heal. This feeling of safety is often not based in reality – it is a perceived feeling of safety.
Kids of trauma are often easily triggered, extremely sensitive to emotions, unable to regulate their emotions... causing them to react as if they are in a warzone. You can't learn and attach if you don't feel safe and you're living in a war zone! Hypervigilance (obsessively monitoring her environment) is super common among kids with PTSD. It relaxes when they start to feel safe, but probably doesn’t ever really go away.
We learned the hard way that when we didn't stick to our guns, even once, then the child seemed to work even harder to get what they wanted again.
Ex. Let's say you don't allow dogs on the couch. You have a new dog that loves to curl up on the couch and sneaks up there all the time. 99% of the time you drag him off and tell him, "No!," BUT every now and then, you're just too tired to mess with it and you let it go. You have now guaranteed that dog will always jump on the couch in the hopes that this time it will get to stay.
When our daughter came to live with us, she knew that if she argued, fought, cried for long enough then the adults in her life would give in. I felt like the crappiest mom in the world saying, "No" to this poor little kid who'd had such a hard life, but we HAD to break the cycle or we would all be miserable.
When we back down - let our kids argue, intimidate and manipulate us into changing our minds, we are sending a mixed message to our child. That message is that we cannot keep our child safe. Rules are like fences. Kids need them to feel safe. If the child feels that they are in control instead of us then their world is not safe.
I said "safe" a lot. That's because I believe it's one of the most important motivators our children have. They do not trust and they do not feel safe. An insecure, scared child behaves in increasingly bizarre and scary ways to get control of their world. When they have control, instead of the adults, then they get more afraid and things cycle even farther out of control.
It took me a long time to believe it, but my children actually craved caring structure. Their favorite teacher at school was a behavior staff person who always called them on their behavior - if they were acting like a turd, she said so, bluntly, BUT, unlike the teachers who let them do whatever they wanted, or were super strict, but didn't actually care, the kids knew that this teacher legitimately cared about them.
Low Tolerance/ Overwhelm – It is sometimes necessary to simplify a child’s life a LOT to lessen the feeling of “overwhelm.” This can be like childproofing – avoiding and removing things and events that can be triggers. It can help to strip the child’s room to only a bed, one or two stuffed animals, a book, and not much else. In times of extreme stress, we’ve removed all of our child’s clothing and the child has to bring dirty clothes to “check out” clean ones. This helped with hygiene issues, and lessened the amount of times that could make a room feel messy or cluttered. This gets harder as the kids get older, but it is important!
Traumaversaries/ Triggers - We don't always know what triggers our child. It could be a holiday (most of the family holidays are pretty triggering for our kids), a traumaversary (the day they entered foster care), an overwhelming situation (big, noisy, chaotic environments - that we probably wouldn't even notice. ex. grocery shopping), any big life changes (the end of the school year, moving, Daylight Savings time... any change at all in schedule) or anything that reminds them of a past trauma - a sight, a smell, someone who looks like an abuser, a familiar looking place... Sometimes we can figure out what is triggering the child and avoid it or at least help them recover. Sometimes we have no idea, and it comes out of the blue.
Role Modeling - manners and appropriate behavior are learned by imitation. If you are polite and respectful to the children and everyone, they will be too. Kids of trauma do NOT learn by watching and having you as a role model like other kids. They have to be taught things like reciprocity, empathy,
Reciprocity – This is the give and take in relationships. The parent child relationship is usually one way – parents give/ children receive. Relationships with friends are usually 50/50 (First it’s your turn, and then it’s my turn. I’ll buy lunch this week, and you’ll buy it next week.). Reciprocity has to be taught. Therapeutic parenting means that we teach the 50/50 relationship, by maintaining this with our child. We don’t want them to expect the world to give them everything, and be resentful when it doesn’t.
Teaching new values - A LOT of our values are established before age 5 (some say all!). With children of trauma, we often have to teach them new values and behaviors. Many of them come from homes where foul language, violence, sexualized behaviors and chaos are the norm. Try thinking of it as a different culture, one that took time to learn and if the child is over 5 years of age may always be their “fallback” values.
Prevention and Calming Techniques - If you can see a meltdown coming, sometimes you can head it off by using calming techniques and prevent a meltdown before it starts. Structuring the child's life to avoid as many triggers as possible helps. Staying emotionally regulated yourself is key to helping your child emotionally regulate.
Children need rules, routines, and boundaries –Boundaries are like fences, they keep children safe. Think of children as researchers. Some children are very aggressive researchers; they will continuously test the rules over time to see if they are still firm and clear. There is nothing wrong with saying, “No.” Rules make children feel safe. Only when a child feels safe can they trust enough to feel loved.
- “No” – Provide lots of structure from the beginning. Set up the child’s environment so that he/she doesn't hear a lot of "No"s. There just shouldn't be an option of doing things that need a “no.” Think of it like childproofing.
- Rules should be simple and few. Make sure rules and consequences are very clear and consistent. Go over rules with the children often! It only takes 2 minutes to tell the children (or have them tell you!) the rules, and the consequences if they are not followed.
- Positive and Concise! Try to keep the rule to no more words than the age of the child (3 words for a 3 yr old, 4 words for a 4yr old...) and phrased positively. Instead of saying "No running!" For a 3 yr old you would say, "Use Walking Feet!" Instead of, "Shut UP! Why are you always screaming?! You're making Mommy crazy! Why can't you just play quietly for 5 minutes?!...." Keep it short and simple, and quietly state "Inside Voices." Instead of "Quit standing on the furniture!" Try, "Chairs are for bottoms (not feet)."
- “DON’T” – When you tell a child “Don’t” you just increased his chances of doing what you’ve just asked them not to do tenfold. Instead of telling a child what not to do, we need to tell them what to do. Create a positive picture. The more enthusiastic and happy you are the more likely they are to listen! Really!
- Clear messages – When delivering consequences, make sure your message is clear and direct. Be firm and FOLLOW THROUGH! Stay calm and pleasant.
- Fresh starts - Fresh starts should be soon – a whole week is ineffective. “I’m sorry you forgot the rule. Tomorrow (after nap time, after dinner…) we will try again.”
- Choices – Never give a child a choice you don’t want them to make. Give them one or two options (both of which are acceptable to you). If you ask a child if they want to get in the car or continue to lie on the floor and throw a fit, guess what they’re going to pick?!
- “Okay?” - By ending a statement with “Okay?”, you are asking their permission and sending them an unclear message. Drop Okay? from your vocabulary, okay?
Things to remember