A major component of our struggles as a foster family come from behavior management. Due to the profound trauma many of these kids have suffered, discipline tends to look and feel a little bit different in foster families. Traditional disciplinary methods, like grounding, timeout, spanking (though you should never spank) and even removing privileges can be too emotionally intense for children in foster care to respond to positively. In the absence of those strategies, we do a lot of talking about feelings, talking about safety, breathing exercises and reinforcing positive behaviors.
Real talk though: If I’ve just been smacked in the face by a toddler or watched said child purposefully dump her oatmeal on the floor and roll in it when we were moments from walking out the door to school, it can be a real struggle to whip out one of those nice guiding phrases or have a truly fruitful conversation about the consequences of our choices. So, in the spirit of setting myself up for success, I’ve been trying to build up my repertoire of strategies just a few phrases at a time.
Here’s what I’ve been working on this week:
Are you choosing to be safe right now? The foundation of our behavior plan at home is safety: physical and emotional. Our four year old Little Man can tell you forwards and backwards what safety looks like and why it’s important. It’s the job of the adults at home to keep the children safe, and ultimately that’s why they should follow our directions (not because I told you so or because you’ll be in trouble if you don’t). For example:
The toddler is chewing on an unidentifiable object she found on the floorboard of your car, and even if it was edible at one point it certainly isn’t safe for consumption anymore. Are you choosing to be safe right now? It’s mom’s job to keep you safe, and that thing you’re chewing on will probably make you sick.
And that brings us to our next one:
Would you like mom to help you to be safe right now? Even for adults, it can be hard to choose safety over fun (which is why jet-skis, motorcycles and casinos exist). This phrase still gives agency to the child: They still have the power to choose to be safe, a parent is simply helping them in that process. Also, some children have come from homes or situations in which it wasn’t always easy to make a safe choice. Kids in foster care often need detailed coaching on what it feels like and how it looks to be safe. Back to the toddler:
I can tell you really want to eat that, but it will definitely make you sick. Would you like mom to help you to be safe right now? I’ll take that icky thing and find you something better to chew on.
I’ll let you choose. This only works if you give your kid two really great choices. Giving them the choice of handing you the contraband or you snatching it from them doesn’t count. Also, you have to be ready to live with whatever choice they make. When you offer a child a choice, disregarding it is basically the same as saying their opinion doesn’t matter and you weren’t serious about them having one in the first place. I made the mistake once of telling Little Man that if he really didn’t want to get in his car seat our only other choice would be to walk all the way to the store. You can guess what he immediately chose. I lost some credibility with him on that one.
I’ll let you choose what to chew on instead of this possibly radioactive thing you found in the car: Would you like a teething ring or apple slices?
The trauma informed care gurus out there will know that these strategies are really just the tip of the ice burg, and I’m operating a pretty novice level in using them. Still, it’s a step up from because I told you so. Give one or two of these a try in your home this week. Why? Because I told you so.