Differentiating between “normal” behaviors and “trauma” behaviors

Image result for kids and teens

Parenting is hard. No really,  it is. If you’re a parent, you understand this very fundamental truth. If you ever want to be a parent, recognize this very fundamental truth now and save yourself a lot of frustration later.

If you’re a foster parent, differentiating between age-appropriate behaviors for well-adjusted children and behaviors that are only associated with children who have trauma pasts can be a difficult and confusing path to follow. That’s why this post includes several charts for your reference!

The big problem in telling the difference between “normal” behaviors and “trauma” behaviors is that often they look really similar. The best advice I can give you is to remember that your traumatized child is still a child and, despite having gone through some things that he never should have at that age, more often than not, he will act his age. That being said, if you’re child has a traumatized past, always choose the trauma-informed parenting techniques. They work for well-adjusted kids as well.

Let’s take a look at Lucy, an 11-month-old foster child. Lucy was recently removed from her bio-parents’ home when reports of neglect caused the police to make a visit to her home. When the police found Lucy, she was wearing dirty clothes, acted hungry, and seemed to be very inactive as far as crawling around the space. She was extremely quiet for her age, and though she responded to someone directly talking to her or picking her up, she didn’t seem to know her own name. Take a look at the chart below to see what the police should have found upon meeting little Lucy:

Age (0-2 years) Developmentally appropriate behavior

0-3 months

  • Reacts and turns toward sound
  • Watches faces and follows objects
  • Coos and babbles
  • Becomes more expressive and develops a social smile
  • Develops a general routine of sleep/ wake times

4-7 months

  • Babbles chains of sounds
  • Responds to others’ expressions of emotions
  • Grasps and holds objects
  • Regards own hand and explores objects with hand and mouth
  • Sits with, and then without, support on hands

8-12 months

  • Changes tone when babbling
  • Says “dada” and “mama” and uses exclamations
  • Imitates sounds and gestures
  • Explores in many ways (shaking, dropping, banging, poking)
  • Pulls self up to stand and may walk briefly without help.

2 years

  • Says several single words and two- or three-word phrases
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Points to things when named
  • Finds hidden objects
  • Scribbles
  • Stands alone and walks well

Chart Credit: Child Welfare Information Gateway – chart credit website link.

Developmentally, Lucy should have been actively exploring her environment. She should have been able to respond to her name and been able to “talk” to others via babbling, changing her tone, and imitating sounds.

If you jumped to dirty clothes and acting hungry as an all conclusive sign of neglect, think again. Babies are extraordinarily hard to keep clean. It’s perfectly acceptable for a parent to not change their baby’s clothes in many circumstances. Acting hungry also is not a good indicator. Now, if the police noticed that she was ravenous and tried to look around for age-appropriate food for Lucy and found none, there we have a problem.

Lucy’s behaviors are really what gave away signs of neglect in this case. These behaviors developed over several months in the same way normal behaviors develop over several months. One day or even a week of neglectful actions on the parents’ part isn’t enough evidence to conclude that Lucy had been neglected.

Trauma can take many forms, however, and can happen in a moment. Consistent acting out behaviors, however, come from consistent trauma or a lack of guidance and healing from traumatizing moments.

Let’s take a look at Thomas, a six-year-old boy whose parents were just tragically killed two months ago in a car accident. Thomas had been a part of that accident as well, but was the only survivor due to his location in the car. Thomas refuses to go anywhere near a car anymore. His kinship family (foster parents/ family who happen to be related to the child in someway) has been struggling to go anywhere or get any place on time because Thomas throws a huge temper-tantrum every time it’s time to get in a vehicle. His kinship parents understand why he’s so afraid of cars, but they also know their lives need to move on. Thomas has been making that very difficult. The moment it’s time to go, he’ll scream, kick, bite, cry, and thrash about; he seems to lose his entire sense of self, others and the environment. Obviously, these are not normal behaviors and need to be approached from a trauma-informed perspective. Let’s look at the chart below to see how Thomas should be acting:

              Age (3-7 years)    Developmentally appropriate behavior

3 years

  • Uses four- to five-word sentences
  • Follows two- or three-part instructions
  • Recognizes and identifies most common objects
  • Draws simple straight or circular lines
  • Climbs well, walks up and down stairs, runs

4 years

  • Uses five- to six-word sentences, tells stories
  • Understands counting and may know some numbers
  • Identifies four or more colors
  • Copies or draws simple shapes
  • Walks/ runs forward and backward with balance

5 years

  • Speaks in full sentences, tells longer stories
  • Draws circles and squares, begins to copy letters
  • Climbs, hops, swings, and may skip
  • Tries to solve problems from a single point of view and identify solutions to conflicts
  • More likely to agree to rules

6-7 years

  • Reads short words and sentences
  • Draws person or animal
  • Takes pride and pleasure in mastering new skills
  • Has more internal control over emotions and behaviors
  • Shows growing awareness of good and bad

Chart Credit: Child Welfare Information Gateway – chart credit website link.

At age six, Thomas should have more self-regulatory ability to control his emotions and behaviors, which he clearly lacks; Thomas is acting emotionally on par with a two or three-year-old. It’s important to know that kids are resilient and with the proper help and guidance, can and will find healing. Since Thomas knew a loving home before the accident, it is very possible that his emotions will stabilize after he has gone through the grieving and recovering process. It is also possible that Thomas will have a difficult time getting in vehicles for the rest of his life because the trauma associated with such an event is the type that adults sometimes can’t even handle. As long as his emotional needs are being supported, Thomas can conquer his fears and be able to function at age-level once again. Trauma of this type, or really any type, takes time and patience to overcome.

Image result for teenagers on phones

Now let’s talk about Sarah. Sarah is 16-years-old and has a decent social life. Recently, her parents have had a hard time with getting her to talk to them. She’s moody, is constantly on her phone, prefers the company of her friends and is sleeping in a lot later than she used to. Sarah’s parents are worried that she might be getting into some trouble at school with peer-pressure, but they haven’t heard any negative reports from her school and her grades have remained steady. Their only evidence is that she’s not as open with them or as talkative as she used to be and it doesn’t feel right.

Take a look at the chart below to see if Sarah’s parents need to be concerned:

Age (8-18 years) Developmentally appropriate behavior

8-10 years

  • Reads well
  • Multiplies numbers
  • Expresses a unique personality when relating to others
  • Solves conflicts by talking, not fighting
  • Is able to “bounce back” from most disappointments

11-14 years

  • May have frequent mood swings or changes in feelings
  • Gradually develops own taste, sense of style, and identity
  • Has a hobby, sport, or activity
  • Learns to accept disappointments and overcome failures
  • Has one or more “best” friends and positive relationships with others the same age

15-18 years

  • Begins to develop an identity and self-worth beyond body image and physical appearance
  • Is able to calm down and handle anger
  • Sets goals and works toward achieving them
  • Accepts family rules, completes chores and other responsibilities
  • Needs time for emotions and reasoning skills to catch up with rapid physical changes

Chart Credit: Child Welfare Information Gateway – chart credit website link.

Did any of Sarah’s recent behaviors pop out as abnormal? Probably not. Sarah is in the process of becoming an adult. She’ll start sleeping later and staying up later at night (known as “late phase preference”) because she’s still growing and her body is still changing. According to the chart, 11-14 year-olds are known to have “frequent mood swings”, due to hormonal changes. Often these changes don’t stop at a specific age, rather, mood swings caused by physical and social changes may occur until Sarah is completely finished with puberty. What about Sarah’s parents’ concern about her recent lack of openness? While it’s no fun for the parents, and probably a bit harder for Sarah herself, this is also normal behavior. Hopefully, Sarah knows that she can trust her parents enough to talk about the really tough things she might be going through. That trust comes from years of her parents talking to and listening to her about the small things: the things that adults don’t find important but that kids do. So, when Sarah has a real issue, she can feel safe talking to her parents or even an adult at school such as her favorite teacher. Sarah is beginning to form her own identity and self-worth. Part of this process is separating a bit from parents. Again, this is normal. Sarah’s parents, however, aren’t helpless. Signs of something wrong can come from a variety of places: are her grades slipping? Has she lost interest in hobbies or activities she once loved? If she’s on social media, is she being bullied? Is she bullying others? Has she stopped eating, or has she been excessively dieting? Have her hygiene habits changed drastically? If Sarah’s parents are aware of the signs that something isn’t quite right with their daughter, then they have the power to step in before things get worse or before Sarah makes a life-threatening decision.

Staying informed and up-to-date on current trends, parenting techniques, and what trauma looks like in kids 0-18 is a crucial step in raising happy, healthy, and successful adults. Be sure to check out the resources page on this blog for valuable information and educational materials that are widely accepted and available.

As always, thanks for reading!


3 thoughts on “Differentiating between “normal” behaviors and “trauma” behaviors

    • Thank you for taking the time to read my blog! I apologize for not responding until now (how terribly inconsiderate of me!), but I appreciate my readers and their comments. Parenting is definitely a challenging endeavor for anyone and everyone who partakes, but parenting traumatized kids is a whole different “ball field” so to speak. I’m glad my experiences and knowledge could help you better understand this!

      Thanks again for reading. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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