For anyone working with children--especially those with a history of trauma, known as children from hard places--it can be overwhelming to know how to handle severe problem behaviors. However, we know that many of these behaviors are driven by fear and unmet needs, and this insight provides a clear roadmap for calmer, more productive and consistent ways to empower, connect with, and correct the children in your care.

The root cause of problem behaviors

When a child doesn’t feel safe or is having trouble communicating their needs, they can act out in ways that appear willful and defiant.

But all behavior is communication, and when children from hard places act out, they are communicating the beliefs they’ve internalized about their environment; most often, they’re communicating that they feel unsafe, that they can’t trust the people around them to meet their needs, or even that they can expect harm from them.

When children are in traumatic environments, these problematic behaviors are often reinforced because they serve the child in some way. 

For example, 

  • A child in a severely neglectful home may learn that acting out gets them the attention they’re so starved for--even if that attention is negative--and that behavior is then externally reinforced.
  • Certain behaviors can also be internally reinforced based on how they make the child feel. Suicidal and self-harm behaviors may make the child feel in control in environments where they feel profoundly powerless.

These behaviors are also biologically reinforced. Trauma has a profound and gripping impact on the developing brain. It soaks the brain in stress hormones like cortisol and places the child in a constant state of fight or flight, which persists even when the threat is removed and the child is in a safe environment. That’s why we see children persist in reactive coping behaviors even when they’re no longer in an unsafe environment.

Unlearning these behaviors takes time and, most importantly, trust

Trust Based Relational Intervention®

For these kids, being safe and feeling safe are two different things, and in order to learn more productive ways to communicate their needs and cope with big emotions, they need to know there are caring adults in their life who will listen and attend to their needs. 

Karyn Purvis’s Trust Based Relational Intervention® is a foundational component of our therapeutic strategy at House of Providence. Through consistent, loving relationships, we teach the children in our care that they have a voice and that they’re loved unconditionally. 

As we connect with these children and walk with them from being safe to feeling safe, we’re actually rewiring the brain to let go of the fear driven behaviors that may have served them in the past. This process begins primarily through external regulation; when the child makes their needs known, they are met externally by a consistent caregiver, with the loving attention of touch, talk, and eye-contact. Emphasizing nutrition and exercise also provides an outlet for the fight or flight chemicals bombarding the child’s brain. This begins a journey towards self-regulation.

Correcting problem behavior

When problematic behavior occurs, the IDEAL response is an effective guide for correcting the child in a productive way. Your response as a caregiver should be “immediate, direct, efficient, action-based, and leveled at the behavior.” This response helps you show the child how to behave correctly without inducing a sense of failure, shame, and defeat when they get it wrong. It empowers them to learn self-regulation.

Addressing the behavior immediately--within 3 seconds--can stop it from escalating and helps the child better connect their behavior with any consequences. Often, a meltdown can be stopped in its tracks simply by saying, “I see you’re upset. What do you need?”

Responding directly means using eye contact, proximity, and physical touch when possible to reassure the child.

Responding efficiently means using a kind voice and the fewest words possible. Problematic behavior is not personal. When a child is losing control of their emotions, ask yourself “what is this behavior saying,” “what does this child need,” “how can I teach them to get these needs met?” Remain calm, and be kind.

Whatever the situation, your response should always be leveled at the behavior, not the child. You want the child to view you as an ally, not an adversary, and focusing on the behavior creates a team effort in problem solving how to communicate more effectively. Every single time, you’ll find the child does not want to behave badly, but they don’t know how not to. You can be a lifeline to a child in learning to regulate their emotions and behavior.

Levels of Intervention

There are different levels of behavior that require different levels of intervention. When the behavior is at a low level, playful engagement and offering a do-over in a calming, smiling voice instead of punishment can diffuse the situation and become an instant teaching moment.

If the behavior escalates, structured engagement may be necessary. Offering the child a choice in this instance is a great way to teach them they have a voice. Choices should be given in a calm, firm voice, and both choices should be equally as acceptable to the caregiver.

If you see aggressive behavior, the most inefficient thing you can do is match the child’s energy--and it’s a trap many caregivers fall into. Stop yourself from ending up in the arena with the child; it only serves to drain your own energy, remove your authority, escalate the situation, and can contribute to persistent hostility in your relationship with the child.

Instead, change the dynamic through calming engagement. Say, “I can see you’re having a really hard time. Let me sit with you until you’re ready to talk.” Remember that misbehavior is not personal, and go back to leveling your response against the behavior rather than the child.

If there’s a potential for violence, protective engagement is necessary, which involves immediately removing the child or others from the situation and then quickly letting them know they’re safe and not defined by their behavior. Focusing on breathing and asking them what they need can help restore calm.

Stand firm.

Addressing behavior resulting from trauma can be overwhelming. It can feel personal and it can get ugly. But there’s always an underlying reason for the behavior, and more often than not, that reason will spark compassion, not make you angry. Rise above the chaos, share your calm, and be a friend.

Our hope is that these strategies will help you teach any child you’re serving how to regulate their own emotions and behaviors, gain confidence, and unlock their full potential!

The children placed in our care at House of Providence have been through some of the ugliest hardships in existence--coming from backgrounds of domestic violence, severe neglect, homes torn apart by addiction, or even directly out of the horrors of sex trafficking.

Though we walk through valleys deep, the children who complete our program are whole and healed! There is nothing that cannot be redeemed with love and perseverance. Stand firm, use these strategies, and peace and order will come to your situation with time!