Summertime fears!

Summer is here! Schools are ending for the summer. During the school year, parents may dread the arrival of the school bus because there are so many unknowns. It is unknown if the child had a bad day at school (behavior problems), unknown if the child will have behavior problems at home that evening, the dreaded unknown of “What is my child up to?” whenever they are out of sight to for too long. Now, parents are faced with days and months, not just hours with their children. It seems overwhelming. So, when summer vacation starts parents face the same, but exaggerated fears. We identified 4 common fears families have expressed over the summer. One we will be addressing today is what will I do all summer long with these children at home. Hopefully, this will lessen the other fears. Next week, we will explore the other three.

  1. Can I keep everyone safe?
  2. What will I do about my healthy children?
  3. What about my own self-care?


We highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with Dan Hughes’ PACE model and using it as a model for interacting with your traumatized children. We strive to be playful, even in the hard times. This makes us attractive to others and keeps our and their brains more cognitively present. Who doesn’t like play? When parenting traumatized children, we strive to accept the children where they are; remembering they are hurt. As a result, their behaviors are not as intentional as we sometimes assume. We use curiosity because we want them to question their behaviors and feelings. Also, it’s not easy to keep our heads around how their early trauma is driving the behaviors. Sometimes, …many times we just need to ask. By linking their history to the present, we will have more empathy and understanding for their experiences. It never pays to try to “scare away” a behavior that is generated by fear to begin with. No matter what, become the coach, the encourager, the parent who is fun to be with!! Many parents report they feel like the activity’s director, unfortunately if we don’t want them to fill the pool, we have to. Just remember, our role is short lived, someday, they will not be looking to us to fill their time. We only have today (or three months) to be the memory makers in their life.

First fear:

  1. What will I do all day with these children at home?

If you think of the summer time as a big pool, parents question how to fill this pool. Our first impression might be we could drown if we aren’t careful. Our brains easily come up with any number of tragedies that could occur in three whole months. Some of this fear is due to the daunting task we, as primary caregivers, feel to be proactive, healing agents for our children’s trauma. Most of us know by experience that when we don’t have a plan, somebody else’s plan gets worked and we certainly do not want the child’s traumatized brain to be the source of the summer’s plans.

Trauma Disrupted Competencies

Trauma Disrupted Competencies (TDC):  Through the interactions between an infant/child and the caregiver, the child learns and develops. When this relationship is disrupted, the child’s learning will be similarly disrupted. Every child with early trauma will have a combination of disrupted competencies, some more than others. Examination of the child’s behaviors through this lens allows for a wide range of possible interventions with the parent in a coaching role instead of punitive.

We will use two of the Trauma Disrupted Competencies to identify and design interventions to “fill the pool.” Our first bucket will be from developmental delays and, then, the second, will be attachment activities to address NIWM competencies.

Bucket one: Developmental delays

Fill the gap

Know the gap between where your child is and where he should be

What we refer to as the gap, is the difference between age-appropriate skills and the actual skill level of a traumatized child. For instance, it is an appropriate emotional regulation skill for a toddler to scream and throw down his toys when they don’t function the way he wants. However, when the teenager throws the laptop to the floor, screaming that it is a “bad laptop,” it is easy to see that this emotional regulation skill is not appropriate for his age. We expect additional skills to be present and accessible to teens. Developmental skills are present, in various realms of our life. For example, there are physical skills that need to be developed, there are social skills that need to be developed, cognitive skills, emotional regulation skills, daily living skills, and relational skills. There are even skills sets specific to particular activities; like baseball, scrapbooking, or knitting.

Children with traumatic pasts are less likely to develop age-appropriate skills during the time they were striving to process trauma alone. It becomes our job, as parents, to spot these Trauma Disrupted Competencies and provide experiences to promote the child’s development of these skills.

  • Develop activities to fill the gap in skills  
    • Social activities examples:
      • Jimmy was unable to maintain himself in small group activities at the end of the school year. He was frequently losing points when placed in group efforts. Sally decided to help Jimmy with this skill by scheduling several small work opportunities with his cousins in which they would build a project together. With completion of the project, there would be a small party followed by a movie night.
      • Susie struggled to get along with her peers on the school playground. Sally registered her for summer playground fun during the mornings at the local park. Sally stayed with Susie during the activities and reflected on Susie’s fun experiences. She took picture of Susie making new friends and having fun. She additionally provided emotional support (short time out when needed with rewards for being able to get back to the group more quickly).
    • Emotional activities examples
      • Jimmy had a meltdown every time the schedule was changed in his classroom. Sally talked to Jimmy about how awful it felt to meltdown when the other kids seemed to have no problem. She set up practice sessions in which she would change the schedule and reward Jimmy (a trip to the $ store) for being able to handle the changes with ever shorter meltdowns.
      • Susie lost school playground time because of fighting with peers. Sally talked to Susie about the many fears Susie had when playing with friends. Susie and Sally used that list to help Susie developed a plan to do something other than fight when she attended the playground summer group. At lunch each day, Sally and Susie made a scrapbook of the fun and listed the fear she faced (and overcome).
    • Physical activities examples
      • Jimmy desperately wanted to play soccer in the fall, but he was afraid that he wouldn’t be good enough. In his birth family, no one had time or inclination for sports. Sally bought a soccer ball and a goal. She and Jimmy spent 15 minutes every morning kicking, shooting, and passing the ball. They celebrated weekly as their skills improved.
      • Sally learned that Susie’s playground fights were usually about Susie’s lack of gross motor skills. Susie couldn’t hold on to the monkey bars, she stumbled up the slide stairs, and couldn’t manage the climbing wall. Sally scheduled time each week for the two of them to go to the local park that was similarly equipped. She became Susie’s cheerleader, highlighting how Susie tried (even if she failed).
    • Structure and unstructured time examples
      • Jimmy was a persistent problem whenever he wasn’t particularly directed and meticulously monitored in any activity. Sally bought a large tub and placed four activities that Jimmy seemed to enjoy in the tub. Every other day, Sally scheduled a half-hour that Jimmy would need to pick something from the tub and play by himself. Something was removed, something new was added for every three successes. By the end of summer, Sally found herself introducing Jimmy to several new hobbies and was enjoying almost an hour at a time of Jimmy occupying himself.
      • Susie came from a home where toys just didn’t happen. She learned to play with assorted construction materials leftover from the previous owners. Sally wanted to introduce Susie to a safer mode of play that she could more easily share with others. She bought some Barbie dolls and allocated a half-hour before lunch every day to play with Susie and the dolls. Eventually, she would exit the play in the middle of their storyline to prepared lunch. Susie finished the story on her own and shared the ending at lunch.
    • Group play and individual play
      • Sally was so frustrated with Jimmy. He couldn’t play alone. She shared her concerns with him. They determined Jimmy would like to play with Legos like his friends, but he didn’t know how. Sally knew Jimmy would get frustrated if left alone. She bought a less complicated set and helped him put it together. Jimmy enjoyed taking it apart more than anything. They repeated this process a few more times that week. The following week, Sally had Jimmy sit at the kitchen table while she made lunch. His task was to see how fast he could put it together on his own. He enjoyed the task. She bought another set and repeated the process. By the end of summer, Jimmy was able to occupy himself for short periods of time without someone to play with.
      • Susie was so use to being in group activities that she quickly declared “I’m bored.” when she was told to play alone. Sally discussed the problem with Susie and reached an agreed upon plan. Each day, Sally would give Susie a project to work on and set the timer. If Susie was able to increase her time on the project that week, they went out for ice cream. Sally took pictures of Susie and her project and highlighted how much fun Susie was having.
    • Transitions
      • Jimmy struggled with transitional periods according to his IEP. Sally discussed this with him, explaining how his hurt part was always afraid of what was coming next. Jimmy didn’t like his hurt part interfering with his life. So, together they came up with a plan to help it heal. Sally would interrupt Jimmy’s plans three times a day. Jimmy would use those times to keep his hurt part from flipping out. Sally would provide small rewards for successes.
      • Susie refused to leave the classroom for specials most days. Her teachers tried rewards and consequences, neither made a difference. Sally decided to help Susie over the summer. They discovered that Susie was afraid of new places and people. Sally expressed empathy for Susie’s fears and offered to help. Together they made a schedule of new places to visit each week. Their pastor gave them a list of shut-ins from their church. Sally and Susie added visiting the elderly to the schedule.
  • Fill the void…some gaps are so severe as to be completely absent. At this point, we must start from the very beginning. This absence may cause the traumatized child to struggle in finding value in the experience. Be prepared to model and narrate the value of a “void.”
    • Know your child’s history. Most of our children came from environments will little healthy stimulation or exposure to developmental opportunities. Even when opportunities were present, their brains may have been stuck in states of fear and sadness. Summer offers time to slowly integrate these experiences into their lives.
      • Sensory experiences and play: Children with a history of early trauma usually lack a variety of healthy sensory experiences. Involve your child in a variety of sensory experiences. Swinging, jumping, climbing, singing, play dough, blowing bubbles, running, exploring woods, streams, and fields, eating ice cream, watching fireworks, swimming, picnics, are all normal experiences that may be a void in your child’s life. Children’s early sensory experiences are often accomplished in play. This links directly back to D. Hughes’ PACE. Being playful during these times with your child, is necessary to be healing. If we’re demanding, as in this is a task that must be accomplished, it is neither healing nor helpful to our children.
      • Hobbies: Include into daily life activities, a variety of your family’s favorite hobbies. Seek others that your child may be interested in. Even if it is not age appropriate for your child’s current age, remember you are filling a void. He or she may need to begin with hobbies for a younger age.
      • Skills: As mentioned under sensory experiences, many children did not have the opportunity to run, climb, swing, or play and enjoy the experience. During the summer, we have opportunity to expose our children to these activities. It can be hard to imagine these experiences as non-existent. It’s important to remember we are filling a void. Of course, it must be done with the attitude of delight and enjoyment at their joy (empathy). Many play experiences can address multiple voids at the same time. The development or improvement of a physical skill can be accomplished while improving other areas, like turn taking, waiting for the ball, or working as a team.
      • Books: Many foster and adoptive parents can’t imagine their children coming from homes that did not include being read to at night or celebrating when their child began chapter books. Being exposed to books and reading for enjoyment takes effort, time, and interest. These qualities are not part of traumatic environments. Envision the summer as a time to begin the process of instilling the love of reading. This void can be filled by joyfully reading to your child, subscribing to children’s magazines, and finding books in areas that your child has expressed interest (history, animals, science, etc.). Community resources can be very helpful. Add frequent trips to the local library with participation in summer reading programs. Model the skill and narrate your own enjoyment of books.
      • Interests: When steeped in fear, children are unlikely to develop healthy interests in the world around them. These interests are absolutely essential to develop a healthy sense of self. Using the summer time to fill this void will help build your child’s sense of self. “I am a person who likes to learn, watch, and find new birds.” “I am a person who likes to play soccer.” “I am a person who likes to design and sew doll dresses.” These interests become connecting points for peers with similar interests and reduce the attraction to peers with anti-social and problematic interests. Few parents, if any, are successful at introducing new interests to their children if they are not modeling new interests in their own lives.  
  • Exposure to the new

Because children grow so fast and are required to develop new skills to support that growth, it’s not always deficiencies that parents work on. Children from non-traumatizing environments are taught a foundational principle that traumatized children often lack. Life requires growth. Normal non-traumatized parenting involves constantly exposing our children to an endless barrage of new experiences with an expectation that at least some of those exposures will stick and become part of the growing child’s world. It’s all too easy to forget this when working with traumatized children. We can spend so much time and effort correcting “lacks” that we fail to prepare them for the next stage or teach the principle that growth is always required. When we do this, we doom our children to always be one step behind. Summertime is an optimal opportunity to promote new learning and skill advancement. We can often predict the skills our children will need in the next school year and develop activities to expose them to these skills. Sports become more competitive. Academics become more demanding. Even, relationships become more complicated. These recommendations are not made without understanding the daunting nature of repairing deficiencies while preparing our children for future development. However, we cannot become so focused on repairing deficiencies that we sacrifice age-appropriate growth experiences.

  • Emotional regulation: co and self-regulating strategies
    • Learn/teach/model your child’s escalation cycle and intervene earlier
    • Increase ability to recognize emotions
    • Learn new emotional reg skills (jump on trampoline, deep breathing, take a walk, swing, etc..)

Bucket Two: NIWM—Building the relationship  

Traumatized children struggle with a Negative Internal Working Model (NIWM)

Negative internal working model (NIWM): The beliefs generated via traumatic experiences with the primary caregiver. These beliefs are: I am unlovable, adults cannot be trusted, the world is unsafe.

This dysfunctional internal working model not only serves as the foundation for their sense of self, but it also inhibits their ability to relate to us as the new caregiver. It’s the relationship with the child that makes healing the NWIM possible. Therefore, building the relationship and healing the damaged internal working model, are very tightly intertwined in practice. When we do one, we are usually working on the other.

Summer time offers the freedom to increase our one-on-one time, get to know more about who our children are and their interests, and insert tiny moments of connectedness throughout the day. Think of these tiny moments as the building blocks of the parent/child relationship and the child’s sense of self. Too frequently, parent feel that the big trips and the long periods of time together build the relationship and make great memories. These can be more problematic than healthy since many of our traumatized children are relationship avoidant. If forced into long periods of time with their caregiver, the child may dysregulate. The closeness can be overwhelming. The result is often caregivers who are not fun to be with (and usually angry) and children who believe even more strongly in their NIWM (I am bad, my parents are angry and mean).

Principle 7: Children need to be enjoyed. (From our Seven Principles book) The act of being enjoyed by and/or sharing moments of enjoyment with another become the building blocks of a positive sense of self. These acts also serve as motivations to create and maintain all future relationships. The power of these functions is greatly magnified in the relationship between a parent and child.

The NIWM of traumatized children creates a foundational avoidance of the natural desire to create connective moments of enjoyment with a primary caregiver. If you are a bad person, you don’t expect to be enjoyed and if primary caregivers are bad, you cannot trust them to be enjoyable. Because of these internal beliefs, the traumatized child’s brain will react to the parent’s presence or lack of presence. If the child perceives the parent is getting too close, the child’s emotional brain may “push” the parent away (disruptive behaviors). If the child’s emotional brain perceives the parent as too distant, the child may act to “pull” the parent in (neediness, pain, or even more disruptive behaviors). This push/pull experience is tiring for parents, leaving them feeling like a yo-yo, come close—go away, but try to imagine the events that caused a child’s brain to be reactive to a parent’s closeness, instead of being comforted by it. Children with a history of early trauma may have been left alone or even hurt by their birth parents. It’s important to remember this deep internal conflict within the children is something that was done to them. They were not born with it. This summer offers incredible opportunities to heal this damage. With this knowledge, parents can proceed building those tiny moments throughout the summer with an eye towards increased closeness.  

In the previous bucket, we highlighted activities to address the children’s developmental delays. It should be noted that when those above activities are carried out with playfulness, empathy, and a sense of shared joy, we are actually challenging the child’s NIWM and building a more positive sense of self. In fact, the challenge to the NIWM will probably account for a good bit of the child’s opposition to the interactions. It’s a very tricky dance for a parent to titrate the frequency, intensity, and duration of the activity to the child’s ability to manage the distress of being in the activity with the parent.

When creating activities to build relationship and sense of self with your child, it’s a good idea to use narration, discussion, and recording the moments. Help your child explore parts of themselves that enjoyed a particular activity, may desire to repeat the activity, and be sure to include your matching experiences of the activity. We want our children to be ever increasing their ability to acknowledge the fun they have with us (since it conflicts with the NIWM). Early on, a child may share with someone a seashell they found while walking on the beach with you. Later, the child may ask you to show Grandma the picture of your shared walk. Strive to have the child verbally share their experience of the internalized fun.

Create Intersubjective Moments of Joy:

Intersubjectivity “Moments when the parent and child are in synch: When they are affectively and cognitively present to each other; when the vitality of their affective states are matched; their cognitive focus is on the same event or object; and their intentions are congruent. (Hughes, 2007, p. 14) Hughes, D. (2007). Attachment focused family therapy. New York: Norton.

  1. Actions indicating a parent and child are connected in the moment:
    1. High-fives, knuckle bumps, wink, etc.
    2. Affect matching: sharing an emotional expression with the child, could be a sigh, an expletive, a shoulder slump, a groan, a gasp of surprise, a yell of excitement, a skip of joy, etc.
    3. Sharing the moments with a third party
  2. After the moment, actions to reinforce the memory:
    1. Sharing the recorded memory
    2. Celebrations
    3. Scrapbooking pictures and trinkets
    4. Displaying pictures
    5. Making a box to keep tokens in from the event

Individual and family time

While parent/child interactions are essential to building a child’s sense of self, they are not the only actions that contribute. Intersubjective moments shared by the family and eventually, peers, can additionally be integrated into the child’s developing sense of self. Every child, therefore, benefits from a mix of individual time with parents, siblings, and peers, as well as, group activities involving mixes of the three. What this means for filling the summer time bucket, is that we, as parents, can now incorporate various group activities designed to promote a positive sense of self via shared moments of joy.

There can be an incredible number of variables to consider when adding in group activities. These may include: safety for all, child’s developmental abilities, child’s interest (gaps or voids), availability of support, environmental availability, transportation, scheduling, child’s ability to tolerate emotional distress, weather, etc. Many parents may be daunted by these variables. Others may choose to ignore them and simply fill the entire summer with group activities, avoiding one-on-one time all together. We recommend a more middle of the road approach. Every situation is unique to a degree. Just make sure that you have a mix of group and individual time. If there is an unavoidable shortage of either one, look to add a balancing activity somewhere. Possible group activities include: sports camps, park programs, youth groups, scouting, family get-togethers, church functions, picnics, community serves, volunteerism, music and art programs, etc. For many group activities, adaptations may be needed for the traumatized child. Adaptations may include: therapeutic support staff, reduced time, parental presence, educating program staff, crisis intervention plans, consider the location if the child is away from the parents, etc.

Theraplay ( and find a practitioner)

“Theraplay is a playful, engaging, short-term treatment method that is intimate, physical, personal, focused, and fun. It is modeled on the natural, healthy parent-infant relationship. (p.3) Jernburg, A. & Booth, P. (2001). Theraplay. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

We encourage parents to seek resources from this modality to further enhance their interactions with their traumatized children. Theraplay has four treatment domains that parents can translate into everyday activities: engagement, challenge, nurture, and structure. Each domain can be viewed as a developmental deficiency and offers reparative activities. They are sensory and relational interventions which can be adapted for the age of the child.

Books available:

Theraplay (2001) and Parenting the Theraplay way (2013).

Dr. Becky Bailey’s book, I love you rituals (1996) reinforces the same principles.

In closing, we know some parents dread summer and fear how to fill the days. Using our TDCs we present two buckets of ideas to fill the days with healing activities. On our website:, are five additional buckets that can be used to address competencies that may be weak in your children. They are: Object relations interventions, sensory-deficiencies, emotional responses, and self-regulation. All provide opportunities to encourage growth in both your child’s competencies and their sense of self. The numerous ideas presented are fuel for thought for those standing at the edge of the pool and worried how to fill the time. Our next post will explore some other fears around summer vacation.

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