Living with and loving a child who carries trauma pain through their daily life is a humbling and exhausting experience. As parents, the good news is that healing happens, especially when a child has safe, consistent, and loving people to care for them.

These children have been on a harrowing journey and their strength and ability to keep going, even when the world feels dangerous and frightening is an incredible thing to be a part of. It also means day-to-day life is demanding, unusual, chaotic, scary, rewarding, and at times bizarrely funny.

Trauma can look like a lot of different things and manifest itself in different ways. It can be rooted in deep psychological wounds such as separation from their biological family, neglect, and abuse. It can also happen prenatally. Sometimes the effects are conscious—a child can’t stop thinking about the trauma. Other times, the effects are unconscious—they might be jumpy or anxious, but not understand why. The loss, abuse, neglect, or abandonment a child experiences, changes the neurobiology of the brain. Even infants separated from their birth mother experience a degree of trauma that impacts their neurobiological development. The amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for survival, gets activated and turns on our “fight, flight, freeze or fawn” response. When the survival brain gets turned on, it turns off other areas of the brain responsible for regulation, language, and executive functioning skills, which can make simple tasks and experiences really hard for children.

So how can we parent in an effective way when our kids are impacted by trauma?
As you work to understand and recognize your child's trauma responses, there are 3 key things to keep in mind.

  1. Connect
    Our kids have been harmed through relationships, and they need to experience healing through relationships as well. Trauma can cause kids to display disruptive behavior. Remember, many of our kids have an over-activated amygdala, so you may experience them becoming deregulated for prolonged periods of time, or engaging in baffling behaviors. The natural reaction might be to disconnect (e.g., send them to their room). But this can exacerbate the separation that kids have already experienced. Instead, remain connected by engaging in a “time in” where you stay connected.

  2. Think Survival, Not Disobedience
    One game-changer for many parents is when they begin to think of their child’s behavior in terms of survival, not disobedience. For many kids who have experienced trauma, they did what they needed to do in order to survive (e.g., aggressive behavior, hoarding food). It takes time for children to learn new behaviors that work in their new safe environment. Verbal affirmations and reassurances can be very helpful. For example, you could say “I will keep you safe; you are loved.” Or, you could let your child keep a snack in their backpack as a physical reminder that you will feed them and their needs will be met.

  3. Find Support
    It’s better if you get help sooner rather than later. All children who have come to our families through adoption or foster care have experienced trauma, grief, and loss. It’s important to let children know that their voice matters. Working with a trained child therapist who specializes in trauma and adoption and foster care-related issues can be a big support to your child and you as a parent. Also, think of yourself and connect with our network of others who understand.


  • What Survival Looks Like For Me
    Fill in this workbook with your child to help you both understand what is going on in their inner world. This is a great tool to share with any of your child's caregivers or teachers.

Source: http://www.innerworldwork.co.uk/

When you understand the origin of behaviour, your entire perspective changes.

What survival (Trauma Response) can look like for a child


  • I am a failure, you are going to send me away

  • I can’t be who you want me to be

  • I am not worth bothering with

  • I feel shame, I hate myself

  • I need to get somewhere safe, I don’t know what’s going to happen

  • I am an outsider, I don’t belong here with you

  • I can’t do this and you will get rid of me when you realize

  • I am humiliated, embarrassed

  • I’m scared, I need to feel safe,

  • I can’t bear your rejection


  • Bored, not interested

  • Confused, forgetful

  • Distracted, not listening

  • Clumsy

  • Talking about something else, moving you on

  • Not moving to where you’ve asked me to be

  • Standing still/sitting still (hanging/lounging about)

  • Finding it hard to stay focused on what you’ve asked me to do

  • Scanning the room

  • Wide eyed, my pupils might dilate

  • Zoned out, daydreaming, staring into space


  • My heart is beating faster, my breathing is faster

  • My brain is slowing down

  • I am under attack

  • I can’t do what you have asked

  • I am terrified

  • I am trying to think of something that makes me feel safe

  • Background noises, I can hear what is going on around me without needing to specifically focus

  • The tone of your voices rather than the words, I can hear you’re getting frustrated with me

  • Feeling deeply anxious

  • I need to get ready to protect myself

  • I am looking for where the danger is coming from


  • Frozen brain

  • Under attack

  • If I don’t move you can’t see me

  • Everything feels like a dream

  • Ready to fight and defend myself

  • Very scared

  • In a fog, disconnected, numb

  • My pulse rate is going up

  • My muscles are tensing, my hands might clench into fists

  • Some sounds are louder and some more distant, I can’t focus on what is being said but I can clearly hear the tone.


  • Stay with me, don’t leave me alone

  • Tell me I’m ok and that I am safe with you

  • Watching TV with me

  • Deep breathing

  • Spinning on a swing, climbing, and hanging

  • Rolling or cycling down a hill

  • Digging in the garden or in some sand

  • Jumping on a trampoline

  • Carry out the chore you have asked me to do with me

  • Gently wonder where I have gone and invite me back to the room

  • If I have forgotten what I was supposed to be doing, remind me again gently

  • Hot chocolate and a piece of crunchy toast

  • A nice warm bath and a warm towel

  • Put a soft teddy in bed with me


  • I need to get out of here, I am in danger

  • I need to find somewhere safe

  • I want to escape but I can’t

  • The people I am with, can not keep me safe

  • If I do not leave the situation I may die

  • I am not as important as my sister/brother/cousin/friend

  • I am not worth much, I am worth nothing at all

  • I am completely alone in this world

  • I must not show how I feel to anyone, they won’t want me anymore

  • I must not tell anyone how I feel, they won’t want me anymore

  • I don’t belong here, I am not part of this family


  • Hyperactive, manic, giddy, silly

  • Aggressive, threatening: stiffening up or clenching fists

  • Faking or making myself sick

  • Defiant

  • Running away, escaping, disappearing, hiding under the table/bed/sofa

  • Clumsy

  • Disruptive, loud and noisy

  • Impulsive or unsafe actions

  • looking life I don't care about others

  • Not coping with unstructured time to play

  • Unable to follow house rules, avoiding what you’ve asked me to do

  • Lonely

  • Keeping super busy

  • Baby talk/silly voices

  • Bumping into people

  • Needing to get into the car/house/park first


  • Vigilant to what is around me, everything feels like a threat

  • Sudden noises (you probably won’t be able to hear them)

  • Overwhelmed, I am overstimulated, I can’t cope or focus

  • Noise levels

  • The tone of your voice

  • Worrying about what is happening next

  • How far away I am from being safe

  • I need to get out of here – now

  • Lonely, even though you are nearby

  • Panicky

  • Feeling bad, movement is distracting

  • Shame

  • Anxious, apprehensive


  • Terrified

  • Nauseous

  • jumpy and tense

  • My joints are painful

  • Increased sweating

  • Numb

  • Racing thoughts

  • Sometimes Hallucinations

  • I feel like I’m vibrating

  • My breathing is getting quicker, I am ready to run and escape

  • My muscles are tensing so I can fight my way past, ready for action

  • My heart is beating faster and faster - my pulse is going up and my heart is racing


  • Keep me close by

  • Find me again – happily or at least patiently

  • Deep breathing

  • Give me a familiar and easy chore to do

  • Crunchy foods – carrot sticks, a cookie, a rice cake, or chips

  • Tell me that I am safe with you

  • Modeling calming techniques

  • Hanging from monkey bars

  • Talk through what you think I am finding tricky using a kind voice

  • Heavy blankets

  • Create a safe space where I can hide away when I need to

  • Tug of war

  • Cup of warm milk or a hot chocolate

  • Hot water bottle and a soft teddy

  • Recognize you might not find ’normal’ family life-threatening, but I might see things you can’t

  • Accept that if I feel threatened, it’s not just messing about or horseplay to me, I feel in real danger.

  • If you send me off to do something and I forget, don’t make it a big thing, just patiently ask me again

  • Give me safe ways to run


  • I can’t be cross at the people I really want to be cross at

  • I wish I had people who loved me

  • I wish I could go somewhere safe

  • I am so unlovable, I want to die

  • I wish I could talk to you

  • I wish I was wanted, why wasn't I good enough?

  • I’m going to push you away before you get rid of me

  • I wish you would notice how scary this all is, I feel so unsafe

  • I need to be in control and make things more predictable


  • Hot and bothered

  • Argumentative, angry, and aggressive

  • Controlling, demanding, and inflexible

  • Lie or blaming

  • Unable to concentrate on one thing

  • Unable to follow the house rules

  • Confrontational

  • Disrespectful

  • Disregarding of others, pushing away friends/family members

  • Shouting, loud and noisy

  • Immature


  • I am in danger, I need to escape

  • I’m really scared, if I hit first, I might survive this

  • If I am disruptive, I might be able to escape

  • I need to get out of here, it’s too dangerous

  • No-one likes me, I am all alone, I am invisible

  • I am not worth bothering about, I feel bad

  • I have no real friends/family, they are all pretending to like me

  • I don’t belong here

  • You don’t listen so I'll just say what you want, just to make you go away

  • I am not as good as my sister/brother/cousin/friend, you don’t really want me

  • No one really cares whether I am here or not, I am unimportant

  • I can’t trust anyone


  • Tense, I am ready for action

  • Over alert, my heart is beating so loud I can hear it

  • Nauseous

  • Faint or dizzy

  • Terrified

  • I can’t cope

  • I am so alone, you don’t understand

  • I need to laugh hysterically

  • I need to cry, I am so upset

  • I am worthless

  • I am ugly inside and out, no-one wants me here, you hate me


  • Tell me you love me even though my behavior pushes you away

  • Don’t punish me for being cross; reward me with your kindness and love for getting calm again

  • Keep me safe from hurting myself

  • Match my energy

  • Deep breathing

  • Chewy foods

  • Support me socially

  • Hanging, swinging and climbing

  • Warm bath with lots of bubbles

  • Warm milk or a hot chocolate

  • Hot water bottle

  • A super-soft teddy and/or blanket

  • Give me something to do that makes me feel important

  • Connect with me and show me empathy before exploring the consequences of my behavior

  • Let me have somewhere safe to go to so I can calm down with or without you

  • Make things predictable. Tell me about changes before they happen, especially if strangers are coming into the house or I have to go somewhere new

  • Accept I might not know why I behaved in that way & I might not remember what happened

  • Listen and acknowledge how I feel, even if you see it differently, it will help me feel listened to


  • Hurting myself helps me to feel something (self-harm)

  • Drinking alcohol or taking drugs, helps me to feel happy

  • If I join in on social media, I can talk to strangers who don’t judge me and might care for me

  • I’m not as good as everyone else, I am useless

  • This isn’t going to get any better so I might as well give up

  • No-one would care or notice if I live or die

  • It’s all my fault, I am unlovable

  • I can’t win in this world - I’ll never be safe, nothing will feel ok

  • I want to die, I already feel dead inside


  • Quiet, low mood

  • Alone or withdrawn

  • Fidgety but not disruptively so - anxious

  • Never questioning or asking questions, never drawing unnecessary attention to myself

  • Yes or no answers

  • Doing just enough to avoid being noticed, unable to think

  • Quiet and passive, compliant, resigned to my fate


  • I am so tired

  • I must put on a brave face

  • You don’t really care about me, I am so lonely

  • If I do what you want, you will leave me alone

  • Tummy aches

  • If I just sit here, you won’t notice me

  • If I sit over there, you won’t notice me

  • I can’t think straight

  • I need to be like my sister/brother/cousin/friend so I don’t stand out

  • I am sad

  • I feel dead inside


  • Exhausted, worn out, I have no energy

  • Depressed or anxious

  • Worthless

  • Guilty, it’s all my fault

  • Like crying or screaming

  • I can’t sleep

  • Unable to relax or enjoy anything

  • Unable to care

  • Poorly, it’s giving up


  • See me, listen to me

  • Give me small repetitive things to do

  • Weighted blanket

  • Building with Lego or Play-doh

  • Tell me I am safe

  • Deep breathing

  • Swinging

  • Let me spend quiet time just with you

  • Understand that social media might symbolizes a comforting connection

  • Hot chocolate and a crunchy cookie

  • Wrap me up in a soft blanket and let me watch TV

  • Understand that playing computer games, lets me be by myself somewhere safe

  • Recognize I am hurting inside and might need professional help

  • Know that I am easily bullied, look out for this rather than expect me to tell you.

  • Appreciate I will say whatever I think you want me to say

  • Be aware that I am an easy target and can be coerced easily to keep the peace

  • Appreciate I cannot cope being the center of attention or the focus person

  • Watch for me removing myself, standing on the outside of what is going on

  • A warm bath and a warm towel

  • Warm pyjamas