Adoption Triad: Effectively Responding to a Child in Crisis

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October 2022   |   Archive   |   National Adoption Month   

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Effectively Responding to a Child in Crisis

Responding effectively to a child in crisis is an essential skill for parents who foster or adopt a child who has a history of trauma and loss. While most parents know the challenge of responding to a child who is having the dreaded “meltdown,” parents who have adopted or are fostering may face these challenging behaviors more frequently. Knowing how to effectively respond improves parents’ ability to ensure the child’s safety, and it can also be an opportunity to help the child learn to handle their feelings more constructively while also strengthening their relationship with the child.

Keep in mind that children need their parents the most during the tough times, and one of those tough times is when a child has lost control and their behavior is escalating. It is important that parents understand what is underneath the behavior. As human beings, our bodies and minds respond to fear and stress with a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, which are useful responses when we are in danger. For the child who has experienced trauma and loss, the threshold for feeling fearful and stressed is lower, so the child may move faster and more quickly into a fight, flight, or freeze response, even when it looks to us like there is no apparent danger. Remember, that at some point in the child’s life, these responses were necessary for the child’s emotional, and perhaps physical, safety. The child may not have been able to consistently rely on receiving help and comfort from adult caretakers, so it may take time and many repeated positive moments to help the child understand that the parent will be there to support the child in managing their fears and stressors.

But first, it is essential for parents to build self-awareness of their own reactions to fear and stress. Remember that we are only human, so it is likely that our bodies and minds might react with a fight, flight, and freeze response to the child who has lost control of their behavior and emotions. Emotional states are often contagious. Parents will need to be proactive in planning for how to respond to a crisis. It will take good self-awareness, increased knowledge, and lots of practice for parents to respond to the child in ways that are helpful in calming the child rather than in ways that may escalate the child’s behavior. Parents need good support and resources to help them build skills in this area. One useful resource for learning more about responding effectively to a child in crisis is the National Training and Development Curriculum’s (NTDC’s) Right-Time theme, Responding to Children in Crisis.

This Right-Time theme includes many helpful resources, including a video featuring professionals and parents sharing their real-life experiences with helping children in crisis. One important section of the video involves a discussion about the importance of understanding the following four phases of a crisis and their key points:

  1. Triggering: A trigger for a crisis can be an internal or external event that reminds the child of an emotion that they have had before. Sometimes triggers are obvious, but sometimes they are not. Building awareness of what has triggered the child may be a good strategy in working to prevent a future a crisis.
  2. Escalation: It is important to recognize the signs of escalation and react in a way that may help the child remain calm, such as using a calm voice and keeping words to a minimum, keeping body language related and open, and using distraction if possible. The immediate goal for this and the next phase is to keep the child safe.
  3. Crisis: The most important thing for a parent to do is to stay calm and help the child remain calm. Remember that consequences and punishment do not work in this phase and often make the situation worse. Focus on the child’s feelings rather than behavior. The role of the parent during this phase is to be a soothing presence.
  4. Recovery: After the child has calmed, this time can be used for learning and building connection between the child and parent. This can be a time to reflect on what was and was not helpful and to problem solve around what to do to avoid or help during a crisis.


Parenting a child with a history of trauma and loss offers rewards and challenges. It is important that parents be proactive in getting the support and resources they need to be successful. The NTDC Right-Time themes can be a useful resource, and the link is provided below as one of the three resources for learning more about this topic.


Responding to Children
in Crisis



Trauma Informed Parenting” [Podcast]

By Perry



Trauma Informed Parenting” [Podcast]

 By Lanni




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