4 Practical Tips for Parenting Kids with a Trauma History

Amanda Idleman

Contributing Writer
Published May 03, 2024
4 Practical Tips for Parenting Kids with a Trauma History

Over the past three years, we have grown from a family of five to a family of seven through foster care and adoption. Here are some practical things I’ve learned as I’ve gathered more support for our family:

Over the past three years, we have grown from a family of five to a family of seven through foster care and adoption. It’s been a wild ride! We went in scared but enthusiastic, and as we have moved along this journey, we’ve seen God provide for our family in truly miraculous ways. As our children have become more settled in our home and have started to grow past being babies, we are starting to see the effects of trauma and substance exposure on their precious lives. The main thing I have learned as I am working from a place of stress towards proficiency is that I need more tools and a bigger village to parent my kids who have been impacted by trauma well. 

There is another truth that has taken some time for me to digest, and that is that every adoption comes with wins and losses. When we step into the role of foster, kinship, or adoptive parent, it's vital that we make room in our hearts for both the joy that comes with loving a child as well as the grief that is unavoidable when a child is not able to be raised by their birth parents. Acknowledging the complexity of adoption does not diminish the role we have in our kids' lives but only makes us more open to offering them the love and support that they need as they go through the lifelong process of reconciling what they’ve lost and who they are. 

That being said, I’ve learned quickly that parenting children with a trauma history is hard. There is a lot of confusion, a general lack of support, the need for better education on the ways that our kids' brains and bodies are impacted by their history, and more than anything, I have to grapple with the reality that I’m not a perfect parent. The guilt of not doing it all perfectly as a mom lands harder when I have chosen to step into not only a parenting role for my children, but I am committed to being a healing agent in their lives as well. I recognize that their behavior is a result of an injury, but when I behave poorly, it’s the result of a mom who is ill-prepared to bear the burdens of her children. 

In the middle of the hard work, I was encouraged by moms who have gone before me with children whose brains work differently, not due to trauma but due to developmental differences, to reach out and gather more support. They were so very right. I need a team as a mom with children who have special circumstances. We all need a village as parents, but as a foster and adoptive mom, you need a special kind of village. 

Here are some practical things I’ve learned as I’ve gathered more support for our family:

1. Trauma Impacts Brains and Bodies

Trauma impacts brains and bodies. My children are normally developed kiddos who process the world differently, which leads to a greater frequency, intensity, and duration of typical preschooler struggles due to the trauma and substance exposure they endured before they could even talk. A lot of times, my kids can’t tell you how they felt when they went through those tough things. Many well-meaning people want to discount the profound impact of these events, but science tells us that preverbal trauma is real and early intervention is important. 

I share this because it’s easy to overlook some of the more subtle ways trauma is impacting how your child interacts with the world when they are young. It’s easy for friends and family to see a “normal-looking” child, so they want to discount the ways that your family may need support because the differences you see are in the details. Young kids with a known preverbal trauma history benefit from early interventions. Their young brains are more open to learning coping skills, strategies, and new pathways that lead to health. 

For one of my kids, we only see the very subtle differences in how they take in the world, but these differences are consistent with what is normally reported to be more obvious at age 7 and 8 with children that have been exposed to drugs in utero. We could overlook or wait to address the sensory-seeking behaviors, or we can start now teaching us all how to better help them handle the world around them. Learning about how early experiences impact your kid helps you better advocate for them from a young age. 

2. Employ Olympic Level Self-Care

What you didn’t know is that you have joined the Olympics of parenting! Welcome to the club! 

As a member of this special elite group of parents, you have to employ Olympic levels of self-care in your life, or you will get burnt out.  All parenting is hard, but parenting kids with a trauma history is really, really hard. Knowing that being extremely proactive about caring for your own brain and body is not selfish; it's the best way to love your kids the way they need to be loved. Your self-care is about them more than it is about you. 

Parents of children with these kinds of needs often suffer from secondary trauma, health issues, mental health struggles, and more. Your body keeps score just like your kiddo's body does. This is just part of being human; we carry the weight of each other's struggles, and as a parent, we must be proactive in staying fit enough to lead our family towards health.

Figure out what nourishes your mind, body, soul, relationships, and spirit. I’d make a list and think of how to do these things on a daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly time frame. Get your village involved, let them babysit, and schedule those big breaks from the kids a few times a year. I know your parental guilt is yelling no, I can’t leave my kid, but I’m telling you it’s better for the both of you if you invest in some kid-free time a few days out of the year. Do it for them. 

3. Find Your Team

All this being said, it can only be done with a team! It takes time to find your team and a lot of trial and error. We spent a whole year going to play therapy that I felt did nothing for my daughter, but I wanted to finish what we started, so we stuck with it. Now, we are on a waitlist for a trauma and attachment-informed therapist because finding the right people to support your family takes time and effort. 

I highly recommend starting Occupational Therapy if your child has a trauma history or was exposed to substances in utero. Most times kids with these experiences have sensory processing issues. Either they are under-sensitive to stimulus-seeking input, which could look like ADHD or ODD, or they are extra sensitive to a stimulus, which can look like a very short window of tolerance. A trauma-informed OT therapist can help you and your child build up skills they need to better handle the world around them. 

Some other great people to get involved with are social workers, doctors, the support of other foster and adoptive parents, parent coaches, supportive friends, family, babysitters, teachers, counselors, childcare workers, therapists, mentors, and more. Your family is special and requires many hands to love each other well! 

4. Become Trauma-Informed

At the end of the day, the reality is you are the most important healing force in your kid's life. You are their safe place, their ally, advocate, and primary educator, and you see it all when it comes to the good, bad, and ugly. It’s vital to have a team, but the day-to-day work of loving your kids well boils down to you and your significant other. Knowing that you are here, required to do this work, it’s also up to you to educate yourself as much as possible. 

Being trauma-informed does not mean you become a perfect parent. I just spoke to my parent coach today, and the most encouraging thing she shared was this idea of “good enough” parenting in adoption. Basically, it's the recognition in this world that we aren’t going to do it perfectly, but that’s okay. She also shared the power of modeling, expressing that we are overwhelmed, taking our own time-outs, and apologizing to our kids when we need to. Watching us fail and recover is a great lesson for our kids as well! 

There are so many great resources to learn about trauma, but some that I love are the following:

This is just a drop in the bucket! There are so many great books on trauma, attachment, adoption, and more. I make it a point to at least once a month consume information either through a podcast, seminar, or book that helps to remind me of the special things I need to consider as a foster and adoptive mom. I’ll never know it all so I must remain dedicated to keep learning, growing, trusting God, and advocating for my family. 

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Nadezhda1906 

Amanda Idleman is a writer whose passion is to encourage others to live joyfully. She writes devotions for My Daily Bible Verse Devotional and Podcast, Crosswalk Couples Devotional, the Daily Devotional App, she has work published with Her View from Home, on the MOPS Blog, and is a regular contributor for Crosswalk.com. She has most recently published a devotional, Comfort: A 30 Day Devotional Exploring God's Heart of Love for Mommas. You can find out more about Amanda on her Facebook Page or follow her on Instagram.