Barb is NACAC’s training and support specialist. To learn more about the training NACAC can offer on FASD and other issues, visit the Training section of our site.

Originally published in Adoptalk 1019: issue 1. Adoptalk is a benefit of NACAC membership

Q: My child struggles with rage and has aggressive behaviors. I’ve read all the advice from experts—distract from the situation, calm the child down, etc.—but no matter how hard I try, I feel like nothing works. Help!

A: Managing aggressive behaviors is one of the biggest challenges facing parents of children who have experienced trauma. When a child begins to enter that “red zone,” even the most patient parents struggle to fight their natural instinct to get anxious or angry themselves—even if they know these reactions can cause a child’s behaviors to escalate.

Think about what you do in your desperate attempt to handle the situation. Do you tell your child to calm down or repeat their name over and over? Do you propose punishments for their behavior? Do you try to sit down and talk them through it?

Maybe—tired, frustrated, and unable to see a way out of a situation—you’ll even find yourself laughing!

These reactions, while understandable given the situation, can sometimes make things worse. If a partner or close friend told you to calm down or laughed at your anger, you would probably respond with more irritation, annoyance, and infuriation. This is because in high-intensity situations, the brain loses its ability to slow down and think, making it much harder to process other people’s words and behaviors. As a result, your attempts at calming a child down through words, punishments, and laughter can be interpreted as yelling, threatening, and demeaning their struggles. Usually, a neurotypical person needs at least two hours to fully slow down and begin to process a situation after feeling any high-intensity emotion. It takes children who experienced trauma at least 24 hours to recover and be able to talk through what happened.

So, instead of pushing a child to return to a calmer state and inadvertently overwhelming them or causing further escalation, not responding to a child’s rage can often calm them down more quickly. As long as everyone involved is physically safe, try waiting it out, occasionally offering supportive phrases or questions (for example: “What do you need from me?”) so they understand you’re not ignoring them—in fact, you’re sitting with them or near them in this uncomfortable feeling. This may not feel natural or instinctive at first, but it shows that you are a teammate in this battle, not an enemy.