When children have been abused

Understanding the discipline techniques appropriate for wounded children

By Sandra Lundberg

For a variety of reasons, the nurture and discipline needs of children who have been verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually abused are more complicated than those of children who have not been abused. As we delve deeper into this important topic, I want to first establish the keys to nurturing and disciplining the abused child:

  • Correct without shaming or breaking your emotional and physical connection;
  • Be specific with your expectations;
  • Be flexible;
  • Be aware of your tone, word choice and eye contact;
  • Initiate physical and emotional connection;
  • Praise your child, indirectly if necessary.

By following these keys, you will offer the healing experience of meeting your child's needs. Your child will begin to learn that you, as her parent, can have control and she still can be safe. In time, she can let go of some of her vigilance and attach to you.

In the following paragraphs we'll look deeper at a few of these specific methods.

Correct without shaming or breaking your emotional and physical connection. If a previously sexually abused child begins to stimulate himself while in your lap, then you need to distract the child from that activity; this could be done in several ways and would be determined by you, the parent. You might begin by simply shifting positions. If the child's sexualized behaviour continues, you need to correct it verbally. Be sure not to shame your child (verbally or nonverbally) while correcting this behaviour. Even if you shame the child nonverbally, the child is likely to internalize this as: There is something wrong with me. This is very confusing for the child because this activity may have been encouraged in her previous placement.

You might simply say, "Mommy (or Daddy) loves to snuggle with you. But rubbing like that is not part of snuggling. If you keep doing that you'll have to sit next to me instead of in my lap." Then continue with the story and snuggle time because that continues the nurture and emotional connection.

If the behaviour still persists, then stop reading and get up and engage in something more active: walking around the block together, baking cookies and so on. (Some parents might choose this option first.) Consider the fact that the inappropriate behaviour may seem normal to the child and it will take time to reshape the child's understanding of what is appropriate and inappropriate. Or the child may have become bored and so started to stimulate himself. Even children who have never been abused may engage in some type of self-stimulation when bored.

Of course, sometimes parents send a shame message and break the connection physically and emotionally. If this happens for you, then prepare yourself for how you'll handle that situation differently, with compassion, when the opportunity arises again. Practicing your words beforehand can be very helpful. Your child needs to learn about appropriate touch that is not sexualized. Your child also needs to understand that sexualized touching is not appropriate for children. At some point, you can talk about the fact that those people who taught her this behaviour were wrong. This lays the groundwork to explain that sexualized touching is only appropriate between husband and wife.

Be specific with your expectations. Your hurt child may not understand that behaviour falls on a continuum. You will need to clearly explain what the child needs to do. For example, you might use numbers when talking about expectations, five being the best behaviour and one being unacceptable behaviour. For a child of eight or 10 years old, the expectations for making his bed might be:

  1. climbing out of bed and leaving it completely unmade; 
  2. pulling the sheets and blanket up and placing the pillow at the head of the bed; and 
  3. tucking in the sheets and blanket and smoothing out the comforter, placing the pillow at the head of the bed and putting the stuffed animals in order. 

Be very specific in your explanation of desired behaviours. If you want your child to make his bed with the sheets tucked in, say that. If you want the animals nicely displayed, say that.

Oftentimes we expect our children to know these things without our saying them. Also, our children may have learned to pretend they know more than they do or have more capabilities than they do. See what they are capable of, and then tailor your requests so they can build self-worth by incremental success.

Be flexible. Remember to be flexible. This is especially important when it comes to things you cannot control. Primary examples of this are eating and bodily functions.

It makes sense to accommodate when it comes to eating. The child may hoard food because she is afraid there won't be any the next time she is hungry. Or she may desire sweets all the time. Do not allow her to have a refrigerator in her room. Instead, keep a good supply of healthy snacks and offer her food throughout the day. Let her know she can ask you anytime she needs something to eat. The significant difference is that you are the one providing the food. As she learns that there is food available and that you are safe and not shaming her, this need will pass. Also, meeting these basic needs allows for bonding so that she can move beyond these needs to other, deeper ones.

For the common problem of destroying toys, do not get upset and talk about what the toy was worth or ask your child why he did it. Instead, you could respond with something like, "We can't play with that one anymore. We'll put it in the trash." Then walk to the trash can together and throw the ruined toy away. One less toy is not really a problem. You may be concerned that you'll end up throwing all the toys away. Usually that does not happen. Sometimes saying less and taking immediate action accomplishes more in this situation.

However, you know your child's maturity level best. Talking through situations may work with some children. After seeing the broken toy, you might say, "You must really be hurting; let's talk about it." An emotionally immature child is not likely to respond in a way to clarify why she destroyed the toy. She may be unable to put into words why she is angry or hurting. Again, you know your child best. Keep his maturity level in mind when deciding how to respond.

Be aware of your tone, word choice and eye contact. Remember that children who have been abused are very vigilant to read their parents' attitudes without a word being spoken. They began doing this to protect themselves, and it is likely to become a skill they sharpen for the rest of their lives. Parents need to be willing to consider what they are communicating to their children through nonverbal as well as verbal cues. This may mean being willing to take feedback from a spouse, social worker or friend about something that you were not even aware of about yourself.

Parents of children who have been abused verbally and emotionally need to be cognizant of their tone, word choice and eye contact. They may learn over time that a certain word or combination of words sets their child off because it always preceded abuse in their biological family, prior placements or orphanage. Once parents become aware of these triggers, they can creatively work around them.

While these specific methods – and others mentioned – may seem lax in teaching correct behaviour, they actually are quite stringent. The focus is not on letting the child do whatever she wants, but on teaching the child in every situation that the parent is ready, willing and able to be in charge. This loving control prepares the child so she can learn correct behaviours in a meaningful way.

Next article in series: Explaining discipline differences to children
First article in series:
Disciplining adopted children