How to Help a Broken Parent and their Child

“I’m such a screw-up.” “Nobody will ever love me.” “I knew I wasn’t good enough.” How many parents have thought or said these words to themselves, once, twice, or even several times a day? No parent ever wishes their child will grow up believing these things about themselves, so why do parents do it so frequently? (Thesis)

At Family Advocates, I’ve spent years working with parents who have internalized these beliefs about themselves. In fact, the sentiment is so common I’ve made it my personal goal to remind them of the opposite: they’re good enough, cared about, and special.

Let’ talk a little bit about trauma (it’s time to put on your Science hat now). The Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey (ACES), lists three types of trauma a person can experience: personal (physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect), emotional (observed domestic violence, verbal abuse), and environmental (parent with mental health, parent struggled with substance abuse, divorced parents). Unsurprisingly, these traumas affect our brains and our ability to relate to others effectively. When an individual has experienced several of these traumas as children, it causes acute toxic stress. Research has found that frequent exposure to acute toxic stress changes the architecture of a child’s developing brain. So, in other words, if someone has repeatedly experienced acute toxic stress, they may not be able to react timely or make logical decisions. Most of their choices and responses are based on emotional needs that may or may not make sense to the rest of us. If you think about it, most of the relationships in their lives haven’t been healthy. So, why should they trust us? 

Frequent exposure to acute toxic stress actually adapts the brain, causing the lower brain–where the amygdala and hippocampus live–to keep our physical and emotional state safe and to become hyper-aware and hypersensitive. To do this, the brain builds more gray matter on the lower brain than on the top part of our brain, where our prefrontal cortex helps us think critically and make healthy choices. 

Think of a small pillow wrapped around that lower part of the brain to keep it safe, but the pillow took up so much room that it smothered the top part of the brain. Now that the body (and lower brain) is in a safe place, this pillow needs to move out of the way to let the top brain grow and think. The good news is that the pillow can be removed at any time. The person just needs to FEEL safe. And the only way for a person to feel safe after they have been hurt in an unhealthy relationship with lots of trauma is to be healed through a healthy relationship. In fact, the frontal cortex can grow with just one healthy personal relationship. It will take time to help the amygdala and hippocampus feel at ease again so that the pillow can be removed, but it’s possible to build those healthy family relationships, work relationships, and healthy parenting skills. 

So how can I help a person’s brain change? You just need to remind them that they are good, they are special, and they are worthy. This takes time, of course, but here’s my recipe.

Step #1 Be positive, Be specific

Don’t be vague. To be genuine, I must be specific, saying exactly what I mean. For example, I won’t tell a parent, “You’re such a good parent.” They won’t believe me, especially if they don’t know me. 

BUT, if I change my approach and say a specific positive that I observed like, “Look at how your son smiles at you when you sit by him and color together! He really enjoys your company.” Do they believe that? YUP! The parent will come to the conclusion that they were a good parent by sitting next to their child to color. 

Step #2 Be Empathetic, Recognize emotions

I can not ignore the annoying things and bad behaviors going on around me, so one way I regulate my own emotions is to RECOGNIZE the emotions behind the parent or child’s behavior without adding shame or blame. There is always a WHY to their behavior and emotion, and I must figure out WHAT this person needs to alleviate the feelings of not being safe. Asking a question by recognizing the behavior and emotion allows the person to change your perspective as well if you are incorrect.

For example, I could recognize the parent’s emotion above by pointing out his child’s behavior of running around the halls unsupervised by saying, “I can see that your child is full of energy today. You must be so tired and maybe a little overwhelmed?” He might come back and say, “Actually, today is a great day. I told my daughter we’re going to the park, and we are meeting some friends.” Now I understand: she’s running around the halls because she’s excited! Now I can redirect by simply recognizing that emotion and saying, “Now I can see that you’re both excited about later today. That’s why she’s running through the halls. What would you like her to do to begin to calm down before you get into the car to go?” This puts the ball back in his court to ensure his daughter is not running around the halls, and I learned why the behavior was happening in the first place. 

Step #3 Match their energy, Help them regulate

When a toddler has a lot of energy, and they are bouncing to music or laughing at something funny, it wouldn’t be wise to look at the child with a flat face and respond with a quiet whisper. Instead, I would match the toddler’s excitement, laugh with them, and perhaps even get up and dance along with them. The same is true with adults. When they have escalated to anger or de-escalated to sadness or withdrawal, I don’t want to match them with happiness. I want to meet them where they are. If they are getting angry, I want to raise my tone of authority. Not demeaning them, but staying firm in my communication, so they take me seriously. I want to recognize and tell them that they look upset so they can also recognize and articulate how they are feeling. By doing this, I’m giving them the appropriate words to use in their situation. 

Word recognition and using language helps the person move from the lower emotional brain to the upper logical brain, naturally, which helps regulate their emotions. The same is true with sadness. Mirror their sadness, recognize you see that they are feeling sad, and give them the words to express their emotion. Again, this will help them move from the lower, emotional brain to the upper, logical brain.

Step #4 Build Trust, Recognize the good

In any situation, I do my best to listen and learn about a parent. Even when I think I’m sure I know what’s going on in a person’s life, I’ll still make an effort to put those thoughts aside to learn more. They will always share something I did not know before. Ask questions that help them think about their situation. Begin with “What” and use “You.” 

What would you do if…? 

What could you do…? 

What is something you could…? 

What are you planning to…? 

Don’t compare stories (this can be seen as one-upping), don’t give them advice, and never make it about yourself. Just listen. Recognize the good they are talking about, or the actions you’ve observed. Let them know that you are listening. Say things like, “It sounds like you’ve been coming up with some great plans” and “Thank you for sharing with me.” 

These are simple, specific techniques that increase self-efficacy (self-worth) and healthy problem-solving that works with children, teens, and adults. You will build a strong rapport by simply recognizing one good thing every time you see them. Remember to be specific, recognize emotions, regulate yourself, and ask questions that get them to think up their own conclusions. Use the word “What” and “You…” Then praise what you’ve seen or heard. People may not remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.