Kris Corner – Parent the Child in Front of You

April 11, 2024

Today I just want to touch on something that I was recently encouraged to do by my son’s therapist…and that is to “parent the child that’s in front of me.”

Now this could mean many different things, but the context I am talking about is that kids coming from trauma are often emotionally delayed, and on average are, the maturity of half their chronological age so if a child is chronologically 10 they are probably emotionally close to five; one thing she reminded me about is that it’s a case by case basis and to say half just makes it nice and clean. Some kids are not that delayed and other kids are more delayed.

Regardless of the delay, I feel like this context might also apply to many of you as well.

So we were talking about it because my son has some other needs in addition to his trauma, things that he was born with and because of that, his developmental age is below half. He’s chronically close to 10 but he’s definitely not emotionally 10.

Honestly, not even close. Sometimes it’s like he’s six and other times it’s like he’s three. This isn’t his fault and it’s in no way intending to demean him. It is what it is and we are doing our best to help him “catch up” in any way we can.

So her point to me, and thereby my point to you, is to encourage you to parent the child in front of you. In order to do this, don’t necessarily think about a child’s chronological age or what they  “should be”. Think about where they are. What is their behavior telling you?

Do they need you to swaddle them and rock them even though they’re eight? Does they need you to feed them with a spoon like you would an infant, even though they are perfectly capable of doing it themselves? Now some of you already know this, but for those who do not: a big part of the issue is that sometimes kids have experienced a lot of unmet needs…swaddling, rocking and feeding to name a few.

I’ve talked about it before and I will talk about it again I’m sure…when working with kiddos from hard places, you  have to set aside some of your preconceived notions about what a “typical” child is. A neurotypical’s child. Because even if a child is scored at a level one, which means they have no extenuating needs beyond their basic care, I personally think that’s kind of bogus (there…I said what I said)…because when kiddos are removed from their home and everything they’ve ever known, that is trauma. And so they’re going to need something additional from you, no matter what the initial intake assessment deems.

And to figure out what it is they need, you have to look at the behavior. They might not flat out say to you “I need you to spoon-feed me”.

Or “I need you to wash my hair.”

Or “I need you to tuck me in.”

Or “I need you to pick out my clothes”

Or “I need help picking out my clothes”

Or “I need a snuggle”

Or “I need you to rock me”

Or any of the various things that might indicate a stage has been missed somewhere in their lifetime.

Point being: if you are attuned to a child’s behavior and can take a step back from whatever it is they’re doing or saying (even if it’s the most unloving and unloveable behavior…and chances are that’s exactly what it will be), you can get clues to what they might be missing…and can parent the child that’s in front of you. They might be chronologically 15 but emotionally they’re 6, so you parent the 6 year old.

And one other quick reminder: Maybe you’ve had other children in your home who were the same age so you go into the placement with preconceived ideas…but this child may be more delayed, or advanced, than the previous child. Point being: parent the child in front of you, not what you think they should be.

It’s a hard transition to shift your mind to this; you necessarily don’t want to think about what they might have missed or what their life was like…but ignoring it and/or parenting as though a child is developmentally their chronological age won’t bring them up to it. All it will do is serve to frustrate both you AND the child.