Help Me Grow | United Way of Utah County

The Power of Proximity- Teaching Children to Regulate Big Emotions

I recently sat down with a mom who told me her story about parenting a child who has experienced living in an orphanage, foster care, and being adopted at two different times in his life. I was moved by her strength and the lessons she has learned as she strives to become a person of stability in this young boy’s life.

She described using ideas from the Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) therapy model that have helped her reach her child during complicated emotions and improve his behavior over time. One day in particular she asked him to empty the dishes from the dishwasher. He went over and started unloading the dishes. After a while, he came back and sat on the couch. Mom noticed the silverware hadn’t been emptied. She asked him to go back and put away the silverware. In response, he shouted, “Why can’t I do anything right?” and stormed off to his bedroom and slammed the door. She followed shortly after him and sat on the floor near his bed. As she started to speak she said, “That was a big emotion, wasn’t it? Let’s talk about it.” Mom recognized that her child wasn’t trying to purposely avoid putting away the silverware. His response came from recognizing he had made a mistake and his instinct was one of fear. In his mind, when he “messes up” he gets a new family and he has to start all over again. Disappointing his mom was triggering.

Children and youth who have experienced foster care or orphanage-rearing have often experienced complex developmental trauma, demonstrating an interactive set of psychological and behavioral issues. It is no secret that parenting a child who has gone through trauma comes with its successes and challenges.

The following ideas and research come from the TBRI approach to trauma. There the authors outline the responsive behavioral strategies such as the acronym IDEAL that can guide caregivers in responding to problem behaviors as they arise.

  • I– In the story I shared above about the boy who emptied the dishwasher, the mom’s reaction to her child storming off was immediate. She followed him to his room. Research shows that learning is greatest when the response is in swift temporal proximity to the behavior.
  • D– Next, mom responded directly to him by coming into the room and sitting near him on the floor to give him her full attention. Research documents significant shifts in brain chemistry and activity during eye contact and proximity. Being at or below their level (if it’s safe) creates a safe space for the child.
  • E– Mom then responded in an efficient manner by saying, “That was a big emotion, wasn’t it? Let’s talk about it.” Her non-threatening approach told the child that mom wasn’t mad. This is reflected in Levels of Response, in which caregivers use the least amount of firmness, corrective effort, and verbal directive that is required to correct the behavior. This strategy also helps children gain trust, knowing adults will not overreact to their behaviors.
  • A– The next step is action-based. Redirect the child to practice an appropriate behavior alternative. Physically lead them through a real-life “re-do” when possible. Once the “re-do” is successful (because they used the appropriate alternative behavior), praise the child.
  • L– And lastly, level the response at the behavior, not at the child. Never reject the child as a person, only respond to the behavior.

In conclusion, the IDEAL method is a tool for parents of adopted children to consider in parenting. It also contains ways all parents can consider approaching difficult situations with their children. Becoming proximate to your child as they work through their big emotions can help them learn to reevaluate their actions in a healthy and loving environment.

Tagged under