Knowledge of the Brain, Reading Time Calms Toddler

When we are born we come into the world completely dependent on others to meet our needs. If we are among the lucky ones, we are born to parents who are attuned to us and can anticipate what it is we need before we express needing it. If we aren’t so lucky, we are born to parents who are incapable of attunement for a variety of reasons, and it disturbs our ability to attach to others and to regulate our emotions.

Now imagine being born to a mother so mentally ill she thought you had died during her pregnancy and who takes your cries as a sign of hatred toward her, and a father who does not recognize the threat posed by your mother, so he thinks it’ll be okay to leave you alone with her. This is the world Paul was born into.

Sara Lambert
Sara Lambert

Paul was detained at birth and placed into a foster home for a couple of months before being placed with relatives. He is now 2 years old and displays some intensely aggressive behavior when he becomes upset, such as head-butting others and biting, in addition to “normal” behaviors like pushing and shoving.

More than once I would show up to a home visit to see either the caregiver, Paul, (or both!) with bruises from the head-butting. Month after month, his caregiver expressed frustration with this behavior and the repeated phone calls she would get from the day care facility he was in about that behavior. In June, she told me she just didn’t know what to do anymore and that it was getting to the point where she was dreading the phone ringing at work for fear it was the day care facility calling to report another incident of head-butting or biting.

Leaving that home visit, I thought back to the training I have received around trauma as well as my previous experience with working with toddlers. When looking at the picture of this case holistically, I saw this child needing to have relational interactions with others so he can learn to regulate himself while engaging in activities that will help him regulate and calm down. I remembered successfully using toddler emotion books in the past with other children I have worked with, so I recommended to the caregiver to use these books with Paul. I sent her a website link that is rich in information to help parents understand things such as brain development, infant mental health, temperament and behavior and which included a categorized list of books for toddlers around issues like anger, fear, grief and loss and divorce. The caregiver ordered several books that day and started reading them with Paul as soon as they arrived.

In September, during my monthly home visit, the caregiver was elated to tell me how well the books had been working to help curb Paul’s aggressive behavior. I was told the first time she used the books after an aggressive outburst, she had Paul sit in her lap and she read the book “Calm Down,” by Elizabeth Verdick, to him. She read the story to him just a little bit louder than he was yelling, and after a couple of minutes he quieted down and listened to the story. She told me this happened a few more times, but now when Paul gets upset she will tell him to go get a couple of books and he consistently pulls out the “Calm Down” and wants it to be read. She said the books have been working so well she shared this approach with another foster parent at a training.

A couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail from the caregiver and it had a picture of Paul with “Calm Down.” She wrote that he was put in a timeout and he went and chose his own book and wanted to “read” it by himself.

I am so excited for this family; it was one small change with such a huge impact for Paul. He has gone from not being able to regulate his emotions at all to having something that works for him. Our next goal is integrating this regulation tool at day care, but I am confident with the correct education and support from us we can help shift their perspective and help them recognize it is not Paul being bad or naughty, but rather his inability to regulate himself.

The work showcased above is an example of what SaintA is doing through a grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. This grant allows us to study the use of trauma informed care (TIC) within the child welfare system. This case is a great example of how TIC interventions and TIC approaches can improve lives.


Interested in learning more about trauma informed care? Attend a community training session.

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