In my last post, I discussed why we need to let our kids emotionally bounce off us.  In this post, I discuss how to do that.  Here are some important principles that I have learned for dealing with kids in the moment.

Boundaries — First, we need to set boundaries.  This is a lesson that we can learn from gravity.  When people defy the laws of gravity, there usually are bad consequences.  Unlike gravity, we do have to keep our kids safe.  We also have to help them learn constructive ways to vent their emotions.  Boundaries are essential in both tasks.

Some obvious boundaries would be not allowing behavior that’s dangerous to themselves or others.  If you have a child in a full-fledged meltdown, you may not be able to explain this rule in the moment.  You may simply have to move other people out of the vicinity and remove any dangerous objects.  Afterwards, however, when your child is able to process what you are saying, you can explain how he or she went beyond acceptable boundaries and then impose reasonable, logical consequences.  

Other boundaries you can enforce in the moment.  For example, one of my boundaries is that I don’t let anyone curse at me.  In both my various jobs and my personal life, I have learned not to react angrily.  I simply remove myself from the conversation with the mild explanation that I’ll check in later.  With my kids, I learned to say, “We aren’t making any progress here.  Let’s reconnect when we both are less angry.”  I always explained, when I had a chance, that their ignoring that boundary would simply end any conversation for a while.

Whatever your boundaries, be certain to explain them calmly and then enforce them consistently.  Our kids need to learn how to express themselves within acceptable boundaries.  Calm consistency from us is essential to that lesson.

No Penalties and No Judgment — Another essential characteristic is that we don’t pass judgment or impose penalties on our kids when they express their opinions.  This principle may seem contradictory to the one above about having boundaries, but the two are different concepts.  I use “penalty” in the sense of an emotional reaction, such as anger or holding a grudge.  Imposing consequences is more a calm and logical result of violating a boundary.

So, for example, limiting a child’s privileges for a week after he throws things at you is enforcing a boundary.  Imposing that sanction angrily, yelling about it, or making it longer than usual is a penalty that will undermine your relationship.  Similarly, once the consequence is over, it needs to be over.  Bringing the situation up again is a penalty, not enforcing a boundary.

A final important distinction is that boundaries deal with how kids express themselves, while judgment focuses on what the kids say. In lawyer-speak, we say that boundaries are about process and judgment is about substance.  Our kids need to know that, no matter what boundaries they violate, we see them as valuable and important people.  We aren’t judging their worth, only helping them live up to what they are capable of doing.

Structured and safe environment — Work on establishing a stable and consistent environment where your children feel physically and emotionally safe. Clear boundaries, routines, and a calm atmosphere will help your children feel secure and supported.  This is one reason that boundaries and calm consequences are so important.  If we let our children react with no boundaries, or we let them violate the boundaries with no consequences, we are not creating the structured and stable environment that they need in order to process and heal from their trauma.

Alternative Ways to Express Themselves — Don’t overlook helping your children find other ways to express their emotions.  Art, music, and journaling are all wonderful outlets for what’s on their minds.   Art and music speak to human beings on a level deeper than logic, and can reach our kids in ways that our words can’t.  Encourage your kids to find creative ways to safely and appropriately process their emotions.

Each of our children will have to find his or her own path to healing from trauma.  We can’t force our kids down a particular path, but we can create an environment that increases their odds of success.  By allowing our children to bounce off us, we can help them regain the sense of safety, trust, and structure that is essential to their recovery.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.