The Power Behind Overcoming Fear

Researcher are getting a handle on a big problem facing our children: fear is a huge issue for many children coming from trauma and neglect backgrounds where their needs were not met in consistent, nurturing ways in early life. Science is unraveling the mystery of  the neurobiology of fear and the body’s amazing fight, flight, and freeze responses designed to survive a traumatic event. Clinicians are seeing that with sustained danger and no one to help them, children eventually believe that they are alone in the world without anyone to meet their needs, so they develop survival skills in place of trusting others to care for them. Practitioners are recognizing that hurt children still use the fear-based survival strategies they learned prior to coming to their new foster or adoptive home, despite now living in stable, caring homes.

It is vitally important to learn how to recognize your child’s trauma-based needs that are born out of fear, and learn to promote felt safety in your home to disarm the core fear issues driving their survival behaviors. Yes, it is a daunting task to dive into a child’s deeply ingrained fear responses, but it is a necessary one, in order for your child to heal. But fear is a funny thing. It sticks its ugly head in places it doesn’t belong. And if you are parenting a fearful child but feeling stuck at helping them heal, chances are fear has a hold on you too, in some area. It is an ailment common to humanity.

We’re getting a handle on the PROBLEM. But what we truly need is connection with the Solution.

A loving Father is ready to take hold of your hand, when you extend it to Him, to help you through your own fear. It is only in this connection to Him (taking His hand) that fear dissipates in your life and you receive the authority to cast out fear in your child’s life.

TBRI can help you create an environment of felt safety for your child, to help them deal with their fear, but first you yourself need to walk in fearlessness by taking hold of your own Safety Source. What do you do when you fear God, not in awe-some reverence, but because you are afraid to reveal yourself to Him? Do you fear His rejection? Are you back in the Garden after eating from the Tree, trying to hide your sins from God and yourself? Let Him help you in your fears.

Here are 5 verses showing the True power behind overcoming fear, that you can talk to the Father about, asking Him to take away the fear. God wants your child set free of fear and you set free of fear, even more than you do.

1. “Fear thou not; for I am with you: be not dismayed; for I am your God: I will strengthen you yes, I will help you; yes, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.”- Isaiah 41:10
2. “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” – Psalms 27:1
3. “For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7
4. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
– John 14:27
5. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear: because fear has torment. He that fears is not made perfect in love.” – 1 John 4:18

Meet the Need: Powerlessness

This blog entry is dedicated to my oldest son, age 21, who, until he was about 3, would, just as often as not, merely point and grunt for what he wanted, compelling his older sisters to carry him around until he got whatever it was that caught his eye. The sisters knew his language and responded swiftly to meet his need, giggling at how only they understood him. Why use words when you have sisters? I have to tell you, grunting wasn’t as much fun for me to hear, though, and I was happy when he outgrew this quirky little stage. But for our children who come from histories of loss, grunting or whining to express a need can be a symptom of deeper issues instead of, ‘I’m just too pampered to be bothered by words…”

Whiny children are overwhelmed children because they lack the internal resources to cope with what life is currently throwing at them. As much as we might think, they are really not whining to drive us crazy. They whine because they are on overdrive and can’t do better in the moment.

Prevention is always something to look at. A good way to prevent whining is to prevent their systems from getting overwhelmed in the first place. Make sure they aren’t hungry or in need of a protein-rich snack. Check if they are thirsty. Be a detective to identify the unique unique body signals your child demonstrates just before they are get overwhelmed, and notice if there are specific times of the day, or specific events that typically precede the whiny response. If you can identify specific situations or events, you may want to take a break from them for a little time, while you help your child work out their voice.

Give Your Child Voice to Feel Powerful:

There is a Catch 22 with whining because it is often due to feeling powerless that a child whines. So, if we are verbally harsh with them for whining, send them away from us, or we ignore their behavior in hopes it will go away without attention, this only increases their feelings of powerlessness, leading to more distress for them, not improved behavior. That is kind of an intense sentence. But then, this whining cycle is also intense.

The antidote is giving them more power.

Remember, you are really sharing power with your child, not giving up your power. Power sharing can come in the form of letting your child know he/she is heard even if you cannot give them what they want. “I know you wanted to go to the park today and you are so sad it is raining. It is hard when your plans get changed suddenly isn’t it?”

Your child will also experience power when you encourage a strong voice, such as “let me hear your big boy voice’ or, ‘let me hear your strong voice’. This lets them know you value what they have to say. Some parents have had success creating their own scripts to say to their child in the whiny moment, which they have taught to and practiced with their child at an earlier time, such as during family night.  Using a favorite toy, “Can you show me Stuffy’s ‘weak voice’?” (whining). “Can you show me Stuffy’s strong voice?” (asking with words). If you make a game with this during moments of calm, your child will have the language to understand what you are expecting of them in the hard moment.

Your child will love your playfulness and exaggerations when you ‘help’ the stuffed toy look for his voice “I wonder where Stuffy’s strong voice went? It was here just a minutes ago! Is it under the table? The chair? Hiding in the toy box?” After the toy finds its strong voice, practice asking for things in a strong voice.

You can then playfully use these same questions to your child when they first start whining. Playful correction keeps connection at the forefront and disarms their moments of distress.

Preemptive Connection:

Whiny children may feel alone in their powerlessness. We are created to connect. When something disrupts their connection with you (whether real or imagined) this feeling can easily overwhelm them with feelings of loss they cannot manage in healthy ways. Sometimes all it takes is your momentary attention directed at little sister, or them not getting something they want, to set them off spiraling into aloneness and despair.

Pre-emptive connection means you seek out connecting moments with your child before the need arises; you fill their ‘connection tank’ before it runs dry. This means you don’t wait for your child to ‘ask’ (which will usually be through whining or maladaptive behavior of some kind, which many parents call ‘attention-seeking behavior”) before you offer to snuggle, cuddle, or the teenager-equivalent milkshake run to McDonalds. You can build in connection rituals throughout the day and evening that your child can count on, to keep their tank full.

But you can also connect with your child at the first sign your child needs you, before behaviors really escalate. “Hey son, you look like you might need some one-on-one time with me, let’s go spend some time together.” No, this is not rewarding bad behavior, it’s meeting their immense needs for connection with you.

Be Aware of Parent Triggers:

The sound of whining can create anxiety in parents, not unlike scraping fingernails on a chalkboard. Be mindful of what’s triggering you, so that you can remain calm to be there for them in their need. A whiny child is a needy child. When we see whining as an indicator of a need instead of willful behavior, we can respond with compassion and connection. Don’t feel like you have to solve every problem (that just sets us up for failure) –  just let them know you are there for them. “I hear you. You are important. “

Meet the Need: Accepting No

I don’t know anyone who likes to accept ‘no’ for an answer, do you? Even us parents get that internal churning feeling when we’re told no about something in the grown-up world. And let’s face it, all children want what they want, when they want it. How much more so for our children from hard places, coming from early trauma, neglect, and loss. These hurt children of ours can react to ‘no’ with intense physical and emotional pain in a way that completely overwhelms their system, causing them to strike back with intent to take us down with them. A simple ‘no’ from us sends them into a tailspin of defiant behaviors, and we have no idea what underlying pain they are feeling when all we see is their anger. Oh, the intense anger.  Or maybe your child shuts down instead, saying, ‘that’s ok, no big deal, I didn’t really want it anyway.” This response is tricky because it appears he’s fine. In the future I’ll write about this ‘freeze’ response.

Something that adds to this brewing mess is our expectations that our children should just accept ‘no’ in obedience to us. Traditional parenting says ‘do it just because I said so’. That may seem to work in kiddos who are very securely attached to parents, but demanding obedience is the special sauce of disaster for our insecure children. Why can’t they just trust us that we know what’s best for them?

One of the reasons accepting ‘no’ is so hard for children from trauma backgrounds is that, despite now living in safe homes with caring parents, our children often remain haunted by feelings of being unloved, unwanted, and un-cared for in the past. And when the abuse/neglect happened to them before they were verbal, these memories get stored in their bodies absent conscious awareness of time and place.* Research tells us these earliest memories of neglect and loss are buried deep within and are carried as vague impressions and feelings without clear events associated to them.* What can happen then is, they can react to today’s ‘no’ by reliving all the ‘nos’ of yesterdays gone by. They react to you saying ‘no’ in this moment but heap on all the past times when they did not have what they needed. “No, you may not have a cookie 10 minutes before dinner time” feels to them like the years of having to go without any food for long periods of time. No wonder they freak out.

There are several proactive strategies to gently lead your child to accept no. Today I’ll focus on just two. This works preventatively not only for accepting no, but for any number of behaviors that stem from feeling of loss and pain. Again, these are pro-active, meant to build trust and internal resources before events occur. They are not stop-the-behavior-when-it-happens strategies. We can talk about those in later posts.

Offer lots of practice accepting ‘no’ in a gentle and kind way. If meltdowns, whining and screaming have been the ways your child communicated in the past, it may be the only thing they know to do. Sometimes they need to see a better way to know what you expect. One of my favorite ways to teach new skills to a child is through role playing with puppets or stuffed animals/toys. This turns into not only a great teaching/reinforcing lesson, but it is also an amazing connecting activity. Puppets or stuffed toys help to not make the activity about your relationship with the child, or what they have not done correct in the past –  the toys do all the talking; they do the hard work.

You start by ‘teaching’ one of the puppets/stuffed toys how to be gentle and kind when accepting no, as your child watches the puppet ‘practice’. Take turns with your child and let him also teach to a toy.  Then repeat with showing the toy the not gentle and kind way of accepting no. Here is where you can get as silly as you want to, demonstrating funny ways of not accepting no very well. Your child can come up with a few more ‘wrong’ ways, and don’t be surprised if they may even include some of their own. You and your child’s toy could then role play mom saying no, and child accepting no in a kind gentle way. The idea is to make it fun and connecting, not shaming. Keeping it fun and silly when you practice will help in the real-life moment too by helping to diffuse the situation next time you do have to say ‘no’. The key to this kind of learning is that you do it when your child is calm and regulated and stop before it loses it’s fun. Practice often with the gentle and kind way to reinforce positive behavior. Praise your child when you see any improvement in real life.

Give lots of ‘yeses’ whenever you can. This is like ‘money in the bank’ or in this case, good feelings in the bank. The more times you can say yes to even the little things, the better it will be when you have to ‘withdraw’ from the emotional bank by saying ‘no’. I have been guilty of telling my children ‘no’ just because it was easier for me, when really it would have been ok to let them have or do whatever it was they asked for. What helped me was to take a breath before answering their request, so that I have that extra time needed to think about it before the automatic ‘no’ that all of us parents sometimes get caught up in. This won’t make you a permissive parent, but it will open your eyes to more opportunities to say yes to them. Some families find success in creating a YES JAR. Once you fill your jar, tell your kids about it and be willing to say yes anytime they ask. Watch as Kayla North of Empowered to Connect discusses the simplicity of adding YES to your communication with your children:


Van Der Kolk, B., (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.


Meet the Need

Quite frankly, our children have a lot of issues they face daily. And they bring a lot of issue to the family. When we are trying to find the root cause of their pain, which is expressed through their behaviors, we can come at it in any number of ways, but I have found that one of the best ways is to frame it as a curious question, “What do you need?”  When I coach parents, I usually ask them to pick one or two issues they are particularly troubled by that they want support in. And, in essence, this is me asking, ‘What do you need?’

A big part of my coaching approach is to teach parents to see into their children’s actual needs by seeing beyond the behavior. Meeting their needs builds trust and enhances attachment. This is especially true if we can be pro-active and meet their needs before they express the need. But even in the midst of a behavior, asking “What do you need” is far more productive than “why are you acting this way?”

This hasn’t always been easy for me, I’ll admit. One of my stumbling blocks was that I thought I already knew the answer to the question. I’ll TELL you what you need:

You need to stop acting up. You need to get over it. You need to do what I say.

I could let go of those beliefs when I began to cultivate an attitude of true curiosity about what is underneath their behavior that in the past I just wanted STOPPED. When I understood the importance of honoring who they are, where they’ve come from, and Who is in charge of their healing, I change. I knew their voice mattered, so I knew the question had to be “what do you need?”.

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