Trauma Brain (Play Therapy #1)

This series of articles involve play therapy.  The names and genders of the people involved change from article to article to protect the identity of those in therapy. The children in these play therapy sessions are between 6 and 10.  This is by no means a replacement for good play therapy.   If your child is struggling with their emotions, get them on a waiting list!

This week I’ve taken two classes on parenting traumatized children.  The first part of this article will explain in super simple terms about the amygdala and the second part is for those of you who already know all about trauma brain and want some ideas for parenting kids who come from trauma.

Years ago, I would have thought that to be a child who has seen a horrible event like a death of a family member.   Today we know that many people have experienced trauma.  The definition of trauma as it relates to emotions is a deeply disturbing or distressing experience.   So that’s most of us!  Who hasn’t experienced a deeply distressing thing?

As foster/adoptive parents, we are trying to parent and figure out these little brains and the big emotions that occur.  Being removed from your birth parents is a deeply distressing experience.  That’s one.  Losing your home, your things, your family and friends, that’s two.   Now here’s where things can add up; kids who experience hunger, pain, surgery, death of a loved one, abuse, domestic violence, bullying.   As a foster parent, the kids we usually welcome into our home have experienced multiple traumas.   Some have not known any other way.

man carrying child
Photo by Ba Phi on

If you’ve taken any trauma training you will have probably heard about the amygdala. If you haven’t then here’s a super simple definition and why it’s important.  Amygdala is the region of the brain that is mainly associated with emotional processes.   Guess what age is it fully developed?  Keep in mind that the frontal lobe (common sense) isn’t developed until age 25!  This part, this tiny almond shape found on both sides of the brain, the emotional part, is developed at 5 months gestation; inside their mother.  How crazy is that?   The part of our brain that regulates our emotions is developed before we are born.   Now think about how that relates to parenting.   Our children’s brains are not fully developed but the emotional response part is.  

Emotions play a huge part in learning, attention, social interactions, memory, decision making and behaviour.  If the developing amygdala experiences maternal stress, anxiety, and fear, those emotional memories are stored in the child’s brain.   When a child is overwhelmed, their amygdala kicks in, the logical part of their brain flips out and they function in fight or flight mode. The amygdala sends messages to the central nervous system telling it there is that danger again.   It senses tension, fear, anxiety and has a powerful effect on the body.

When a child’s amygdala takes over, their logical brain has stopped functioning for a bit.   Their body goes into self defense mode.  There is no reasoning with a child when they are in the middle of these moments.   Asking a question like, “Why are you doing that?” isn’t going to get you anywhere.   Neither will commands like “Calm down” or “Stop screaming”.

I’ve known all of this info for a few years now, but this week I learned two practical tips from these trainers that I thought I would share.

The first tip is from the Emotion Coaching workshop.   The goal is to sit with them in the emotion for a minute.   No parent wants to see their child upset, angry, sad, or scared.   We often try to distract or convince them not to feel that way.   Emotion coaching teaches to get in the mud with them.  If they are sad, sit with them and say, “Oh buddy, you are so sad because you really wanted to play with that toy, because you love that toy and because it makes you feel happy.”  If they are angry you can say, “WOW!, You’re so angry.  Are you angry because you hurt your foot?  That really hurts, and makes you angry.”   Labeling their emotions for them instead of scolding or trying to avoid or distract is key in helping them to process their emotions and learn to cope with them.  We can teach them that all emotions are okay and eventually how to cope with them before the big blow ups happen.  In the middle of a tantrum or break down, is not the time to talk to the child about how they can behave differently.   They are functioning on their emotional brain not their logical one.

Many parents already practice this skill but there is a way to improve it.

“I see you are very angry, but we don’t kick people when we are angry.”

The parent did validate but then used the word ‘BUT’ and then started to use logic right away.   We learned to change our ‘but’ to ‘because’.   Finding 3 because statements is the magical number to helping the upset person feel like you truly understand and are empathetic.

“I see you are very angry because you didn’t get to join the game too, because you really like that game and because you’re very good at it.”

See the difference?   Which one will help the child to feel like you understand them and are with them in their anger?   Which one will make the child feel as though you are on the opposite side and trying to battle them?

The trainer of emotional coaching suggests using this Validate and Support method in all of our sentences with every relationship.   It makes sense.   When we tell our partner, “I love you but…..” you don’t hear the love part you only hear the reprimand.  You don’t feel loved.   When we tell our partner, “I love you because….” they truly feel loved.

The second tip is from a play therapist that we are seeing for one of our littles who has experienced much trauma.   She suggests that we create a space for our little to go to when the logical brain is flipped off and the emotional brain is taking over.   The space will be named by the child and be filled with a weighted teddy bear, a small weighted blanket, some stress balls, scratch paper, bubbles and other items that help our little calm down.  She too discussed the amygdala and shared that our little person is flipping out and the amygdala is taking over.   There is no logic in these times.   The stress is too overwhelming.   Emotions are in charge and it’s our job to jump into those emotions and help teach the child how to cope with them.  Our little one chose a comfy chair to create this space but the therapist said anywhere is okay.   A closet, a fort, a special bean bag, a chair would all be good ideas.   She said to have the child involved in chosing the way it will look, what will go in it and what to call it.

There is much more to learn from her and I’ll try to share as we go through this play therapy any skills that foster and adoptive parents can use with our challenging little people who have suffered from so much hurt.


adorable blur bubble child
Photo by Snapwire on



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