Disciplining a Foster Kiddo- The Strategies That Help Us In Our Worst Melt-Down Moments

As foster parents, we do not have the liberty to resort to any sort of physical form of discipline: tapping, flicking, spanking. It was explained to us that if there was a foster kiddo in our home we were not allowed to use these methods of disciplining our own children. The reasons make sense. With a traumatized child, you don’t know what triggers they may have, and we want them to trust that we are a safe place. Fortunately, we’re not not into resorting to physical discipline anyways.

Our daughter began throwing temper tantrums right before her second birthday. I remember the moment so clearly in my mind. I was putting away groceries, and as she toddled around she wanted to be picked up, which I couldn’t do in that moment. She then threw herself onto the ground and began whining and yelling. I remember thinking to myself… “Seriously, isn’t this way too early to start? I thought it was called the terrible twos.” My daughter is spirited vibrant, fun, energetic, and extremely extroverted. These are attributes I adore about her, but with these attributes also comes a free spirit who wants nothing more but to claim her independence, which can be problematic at times. I resorted to several parenting books to help me strategize the most effective means to helping me parent and guide my daughter. We don’t want to put out that fire that makes her, well…her. That fire will give her the grit and perseverance that she will need as she gets older, but in these toddling and pre-school ages, parenting can be tough as her amygdala is developing.

I would like to stop right here and state that we are not perfect parents. We definitely have both lost our cool in the past, and at the moment I have resorted to bribing her with gummy bears to keep her potty trained. But, in our best mom and dad moments, these are the strategies that seem to be the most effective. They also have been teaching her to self sooth and control herself. For us, this is crucial because we want to teach her how to calm the chaos happening within her. As she starts school we won’t be there for every moment of her day, she has to learn how to control her impulses. 

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Use these strategies to help you discipline your kiddo

Strategy 1: Hold, Look, and Listen.

My husband is amazing, and this is his strategy. It’s a constant strategy he uses with her every single time he wants her to calm down. Because of his consistency, this method is extremely effective for him. At first, she was resistant and took time. But now she knows, when daddy holds out his hands and says, “Please give me your hands,” she has crossed the line and needs to center herself.

The strategy starts with him holding out his hands and asking her to place her hands in his. He waits for her to look into his eyes, this signals that she is ready to listen. He then calmly tells her directions or the correction, sometimes he shows her to breathe and calm down. This centers her. Depending on her melt-down or tantrum this can sometimes take a few minutes. His calm demeanor and consistency are the key to this strategy.

Use this parenting strategy when you're struggling with your toddler  

Strategy 2: Time-in

I have read this strategy in almost every parenting book I have read. Instead of using time-out, use a time-in. Basically, you sit with them on their time-out instead of leaving them alone. We always sit in the same place if we are home, but if we are at a play date, we go somewhere we are out of visual reach of our friends. This has proven to be an effective parenting strategy for me because I can use the time to teach her to breathe and calm down. It has also opened up a clear sense of communication for us. Once she is calm, she can often verbally explain what her trigger was, and why she was so upset. This leads to some of my best mom moments because I can be in her head and understand what triggers her, and what I can watch for in the future so that we can avoid these escapades.

Strategy 3: Teaching her to breathe

This has been crucial to our time-ins. If I want her to listen at all, I need her to breathe and calm down. She’s starting to do this on her own now, without my reminders because of the constant practice. I always praise her when I see her calming herself down without my prompts.

One mom taught me the five finger breaths, which has been especially helpful. The kiddo holds their hand out and traces their hand with their pointer finger. As they go up a finger they inhale, as they go down they exhale. By the time they have finished tracing their hand, they have taken 5 deep breathes. Most of the time my daughter is calm by the time she has finished tracing.

Use this parenting strategy to hold your toddler sit and breathe

Strategy 4: Positive praise

I was a teacher for 8 years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. One of the strategies our principal would look for when she did her walk-through was how much positive praise we gave. The first few years this annoyed me. I remember thinking: Why should I praise a kid for sitting in their seat, or bringing a pencil to school? These are things they should just do, they’re in school. But I was so wrong. Once I adapted and accepted this expectation, I realized how much better behaved my students were when I praised them.

My daughter is the same. We have to remember as parents that we are forming them and their behaviors. I praise her for the big things like when she helps me, or when she is kind to her friends. But I have also learned to recognize and praise her when she meets her challenges. For example, when she accepts no for an answer. No at any age is hard, but at three it seems to be especially hard. When she takes it with grace, I give her lots of positive praise.

Strategy 5: Recognize their fear

The best parenting book I’ve read is “Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: A Love Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors,” by Heather Forbes and Brian Post. This strategy comes straight from this book. I recommend every parent read it whether they have severe behaviors in their home or not. I wish I had read it sooner.

Recognizing her fear is one of my main take-away strategies from this book. A few months back, one of my mom friends posted a meme on Facebook depicting this image of how we can feel like victims to our three-year old. The Facebook post had a lot of laughs, and a lot of, “me too’s.” I’m sure I responded this way as well. There are definitely times where I feel bullied by my three-year-old. While that was all fun in games, we need to recognize the reason our kiddo is behaving the way they are. They are not trying to be manipulative or be a bully. At the root of the problem, we will more often than not, find that their real problem has to do with their fear. Are they misbehaving because they are afraid they’re going to miss out on the fun stuff? Are they misbehaving because they were excluded by the other kids at school? Are they lying because they’re afraid they’re going to get in more trouble? A lot of times, what we find is that their misbehavior has a deeper root, and that root comes from a fear they may have. If that’s the case, then maybe they need a little reassurance that they are loved, or guidance to go play with someone else that isn’t mean to them. Either way, understanding their fear is key to understanding what is going through their minds, and helping them through their struggles.

Strategy 6: Stay calm, and if you can’t, take a break!

As parents we’ve all heard the expression terrible twos, three-ager, etc. They are funny expressions, but really bad behavior can happen at any age, even adults. They are kids. They’re trying to figure out their boundaries and see what buttons they can push, and what they can get away with. It is so important to stay calm, which can sometimes be a challenging task.

It’s okay to walk away to calm yourself down. I have had moments where my daughter is having a melt-down and she’s being so terrible my blood boils, and I’m here to say we are all human, it is okay if they get to you sometimes. But know your limit. If you feel your blood boiling, take a break.

Now, this is easier said than done. Believe me, I know. If I’m the only one home, I can’t just walk away leaving my daughter alone. But there are safe places for me to leave her while I sit in the bathroom for two minutes while I chill out. If I’m afraid of leaving her by herself I sit in the same room as her with my head between my knees and I breathe. Sometimes she’s yelled at me to talk to her, and I simply reply, “you made mommy upset, I need a minute to breathe and calm down before I can help you.” It’s okay to show them you have flaws, it’s also okay to show them what it looks like to calm down in a reasonable manner. I have to remind myself sometimes that I am her model. If she sees me throw a tantrum, how can I possibly expect her to learn how to behave.

Strategy 7: Let them know you love them no matter what!

For traumatized kids this is the most important. They have to know you will love them no matter what. At the end of every tantrum or bad day, I tell her I love her. I tell her I don’t necessarily like what she did, but I will always love her. Sometimes I can see the stress melt off of her little body as soon as I say it. The reassurance that she is loved somehow centers her, and at times has stopped a melt down from escalating.

BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY… Find what works for you!

I have read a handful of parenting books and read my fair share of parenting articles. I have left some of those articles and books shaking my head thinking, “that just won’t work for us.” You may have very well reached the end of this article saying the same thing. Not all strategies are going to work for a parent or a kid. We’re all different. So read those books and articles and take what will work for you, and leave the rest behind.

What Parenting Books Inspire Me?

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“Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: A Love Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors,” by Heather Forbes and Brian Post, and “The Whole-Brain Child,” by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne

 What I love best about both of these books is that they don’t just provide strategies with no explanation as to why they work, but they use brain development as the key to helping us understand why people behave the way they do.


Last, but not least… “The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing Back to Your Adoptive Family,” by Karyn Purvis, David Cross, and Lyons Sunshine

I put off reading this book for a long time. I was under the impression that because we had our daughter from such a young age that I didn’t need to read this book. I was wrong. This book gave me so much insight.


I love to share and learn new things. What parenting strategies have worked for you?

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Thanks for reading, until next time…. Happy parenting!

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2 comments on “Disciplining a Foster Kiddo- The Strategies That Help Us In Our Worst Melt-Down Moments
  1. Andrea says:
    If you have a Fitbit with the relax function that is another good time in strategy. My former fs would sit with me and we’d use the 2 min relax function together. He’d also sometimes ask to do it at night too if he was having trouble winding down. But like you said- find what works. He’s brother didn’t work for at all.
    • Erin Marie Erin Marie says:
      What a great idea! I don't have a fitbit with that function, but I bet there are apps that I could find that would serve the same purpose. Totally going to start researching. Thank you for the suggestion.

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