How to parent a child in survival mode?

By Alex Biddell, BHT | October 13, 2023 

A common question parents ask when their children are misbehaving: “What am I doing wrong?”. In reality, the maladaptive behaviors some children exhibit may be better explained by them feeling a need to be in “Survival Mode”. This is when past traumas color a child’s view of the world and create beliefs that tell them “I have to protect myself.” (Wesselman et al., 2014a). So how can a parent connect with their child when they are in survival mode? First, the best place to look is at the parents. But this is not a matter of what parents do wrong; it’s about what parents can do right now for their children. 

It all starts with the word “mindfulness.” A lot of people may have heard something like that growing up in their family with statements such as “Be mindful of your brother!” or “Be mindful of the time!” Essentially the term “mindful” is often used to say, “Be aware of one’s surroundings”. Mindfulness is like this, but it’s not just being aware of one’s surroundings. It is also a word that describes purposefully thinking of one’s own state as well as the state of other people. It is stopping to take the time and intently focusing on what is happening physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually (Wesselman et al., 2014a) 

For example, say that a person is choosing this moment to be mindful. They may notice their clothes fabric on their skin and the air as it drifts by. They then will take notice of their body, and how it feels as the muscles contract and release to control the hand opening and closing. They then might notice the emotions they feel at the moment which then conjure thoughts or even memories. When a person is being mindful, they allow themselves to freely think and remember without overjudging each thought that may enter the brain. Being present like this helps train the brain to let go of shame and fear and increase tolerance for upset feelings.  

By doing this, people can also view the problems they face differently. Whenever people face problems in the day-to-day, mindful people can separate themselves from whatever problem they face. This is called “Problem-Focused Coping”. This is when a person recognizes that a problem is responsible for the emotions they are feeling at that moment (Wesselman et al., 2014b). Sometimes it is a problem that they can fix and by taking certain steps, the problem will be taken care of and those stirred-up emotions will calm. Sometimes it is a problem that they can’t fix. Those are times to say, “Not everything is in my control, and that’s okay” (Wesselman et al., 2014b). The truth is that a person does not have to take responsibility for something they cannot control, but they do have control over how they respond to it.  

How does this all play into parenting a child in Survival Mode? The truth is that to be the best kind of parent, the parent must be aware of their own mental state and have the ability to maintain it. One cannot simply pour from an empty cup, as the old saying goes. And isn’t parenting a time when parents are pouring out for their children to grow in a healthy way? The beautiful thing is that once a parent develops this mindfulness for themselves to pour into their child, they are also creating opportunity for that child to pour back into the parent. This is the very foundation of a strong, healthy, and loving parent-child relationship.

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A common question parents ask when their children are misbehaving: “What am I doing wrong?”. In reality, the maladaptive behaviors some children exhibit may be better explained by them feeling a need to be in “Survival Mode”. This is when past traumas color a child’s view of the world and create beliefs that tell them “I have to protect myself.” (Wesselman et al., 2014a). So how can a parent connect with their child when they are in survival mode? First, the best place to look is at the parents. But this is not a matter of what parents do wrong; it’s about what parents can do right now for their children. 

It all starts with the word “mindfulness.” A lot of people may have heard something like that growing up in their family with statements such as “Be mindful of your brother!” or “Be mindful of the time!” Essentially the term “mindful” is often used to say, “Be aware of one’s surroundings”. Mindfulness is like this, but it’s not just being aware of one’s surroundings. It is also a word that describes purposefully thinking of one’s own state as well as the state of other people. It is stopping to take the time and intently focusing on what is happening physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually (Wesselman et al., 2014a) 

For example, say that a person is choosing this moment to be mindful. They may notice their clothes fabric on their skin and the air as it drifts by. They then will take notice of their body, and how it feels as the muscles contract and release to control the hand opening and closing. They then might notice the emotions they feel at the moment which then conjure thoughts or even memories. When a person is being mindful, they allow themselves to freely think and remember without overjudging each thought that may enter the brain. Being present like this helps train the brain to let go of shame and fear and increase tolerance for upset feelings.  

By doing this, people can also view the problems they face differently. Whenever people face problems in the day-to-day, mindful people can separate themselves from whatever problem they face. This is called “Problem-Focused Coping”. This is when a person recognizes that a problem is responsible for the emotions they are feeling at that moment (Wesselman et al., 2014b). Sometimes it is a problem that they can fix and by taking certain steps, the problem will be taken care of and those stirred-up emotions will calm. Sometimes it is a problem that they can’t fix. Those are times to say, “Not everything is in my control, and that’s okay” (Wesselman et al., 2014b). The truth is that a person does not have to take responsibility for something they cannot control, but they do have control over how they respond to it.  

How does this all play into parenting a child in Survival Mode? The truth is that to be the best kind of parent, the parent must be aware of their own mental state and have the ability to maintain it. One cannot simply pour from an empty cup, as the old saying goes. And isn’t parenting a time when parents are pouring out for their children to grow in a healthy way? The beautiful thing is that once a parent develops this mindfulness for themselves to pour into their child, they are also creating opportunity for that child to pour back into the parent. This is the very foundation of a strong, healthy, and loving parent-child relationship.

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References

Wesselman, D., Schweitzer, C., & Armstrong, S. (2014a). Integrative Parenting: Strategies for Raising Children Affected by Attachment Trauma. W.W. Norton, New York.

Wesselman, D., Schweitzer, C., & Armstrong, S. (2014b). Integrative Team Treatment for Attachment Trauma in Children: Family Therapy and EMDR. W.W. Norton, New York.

References

Wesselman, D., Schweitzer, C., & Armstrong, S. (2014a). Integrative Parenting: Strategies for Raising Children Affected by Attachment Trauma. W.W. Norton, New York.

Wesselman, D., Schweitzer, C., & Armstrong, S. (2014b). Integrative Team Treatment for Attachment Trauma in Children: Family Therapy and EMDR. W.W. Norton, New York.