Truth or Consequences and Trauma

After extensive reading and personal reflection, my 26-year-old incarcerated son Alex shares his thoughts about parent-imposed consequences. His unique perspective from a traumatic past will help you re-frame your perspective and hopefully redefine your expectations. With a hint of righteousness, he makes many strong points about connecting – which can serve everyone when correcting. To maintain an appropriate length, I edited his original four-page handwritten text without changing the intent.  


Consequences. What kids like them – especially kids like me from hard places? In our fragile minds, consequences spell one thing.

Trouble. Big trouble.

“A controlling authority figure is out to get us”.

In turn, the mere mention of a consequence creates an instant reaction. The thought triggers visceral emotional reactions that distort our perceptions.

“The outcome will be too severe. The parent must have an ulterior motive. We must fight at every turn to avoid unjust persecution.”

From that moment forward, we live in a constant state of fear. It sleeps just below the surface. Every subsequent outburst stems from this fear.

Trust me, I’m still struggling at the age of 26.

So what is the solution? Two words – trust and love. You must teach your child to trust you and to love you. But how?

For starters, you must be willing to face the heat. You must prepare your mind and your heart. It begins and ends with you. Understand the facts of trauma. Empathize. Don’t misinterpret our emotions as willful disobedience. They are not.

I’m not saying that your child doesn’t bear responsibility for his or her behavior. Of course, he does. She does. But those same children are focused on making a radical transformation in the relationship they share with you.

Hard for you. Even harder for them, because trust doesn’t come easy for a child with a traumatized past.

But remember that you have the power to set the tone.

You will lay the foundation that supports a healthy environment in your home. Perfectly? No, but closer each day, if you’re consistent.

Reframing what appears to be a hopeless situation begins inside you. As many wise people – from Jesus to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – have stated over the years, you must confront your own emotional and personal issues first.

Only then can you confront someone else. This is so true and it’s where I will begin.

I encourage you to start every morning by finding a quiet and peaceful place where you can be alone for 10 to 15 minutes. This is your time to reflect and prepare. This is your time to open your heart and set goals for your day. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself tough questions.

“Am I holding any grudges? Do I have resentment in my heart against anyone in the family? Am I afraid? Am I hurting?”

If so, identify where and how – and then consciously choose to let the feelings go. Forgive and tell yourself.

“I will love my family. And no matter what happens, I will persevere.”

tree branch

Convince yourself that healing is possible. Make it your mission for the day to respond with love and gentleness – regardless of your child’s response.

Then ask yourself.

“Have I done or said anything to anyone in my family that was hurtful, inconsiderate or selfish?”

Now forgive yourself. Be the mature one and set a better example each and ever day. Your child knows you’re not perfect, so don’t pretend to be. A child with past trauma will see right through you.

Your child will quickly tell what you are doing wrong. At the same time, your child will embrace what you are doing right – but not tell you in the moment. Too risky to share. Too easy to be rejected. Nevertheless, your child is learning from you.

By simply being real and owning your mistakes – without noticeable guilt, your child will see you as approachable. Your child will view your home as safe. And your child will begin to feel more comfortable – hopefully sharing innermost thoughts and actual insecurities one day.

You will slowly open your child’s heart.

For healing to commence and continue in meaningful ways, you must maintain an atmosphere of openness, love and forgiveness

Now you have set the stage. You are ready to implement consequences, if necessary.

First, you must set clear and definitive boundaries that apply to all – including you, the parent. This clearly will state to your child, “We are all in this together. It’s fair.” Begin by holding yourself accountable.

Consequences should not be arbitrary or strictly a punishment. They should be guided by “home” rules – which should few in number to avoid misunderstanding. And by explaining them in clear and simple terms, your child will be more willing to respect them. The attitude “I don’t have to explain myself” is prideful and contemptuous. It’s an approach that will be counterproductive.

Before adopting any new rule, always take serious consideration.

And remember. A parent who obsesses over rules will never win the heart of a hurting child. The same goes of any adult in a position of authority.

“Guide me. Influence me. But don’t back me into the corner and force me to defend myself, because I will.”

Consequences should focus primarily on character building. They should be constructive, not useless. You aren’t trying to break your child but teach them a better way in a loving manner.

Your approach in administering consequences is crucial. Be supportive yet firm. After the consequence is given, reaffirm your commitment and your love. Do this with sincere hugs, genuine words or playful activities. And don’t expect a miraculous change in behavior.

Baby steps. Your child needs to feel your heart.

In reading Beyond Logic, Consequences and Control from my prison cell, I learned a great deal. Consequences really should be the last resort. Focus, instead, on relationship building – not perfect obedience.

If your child reacts explosively, don’t be intimidated. Don’t be afraid. I know how crazy it can be, believe me. When my fear took over, I said and did horrible, violent things to my father, my siblings and our pets.

“I wanted my father to react, so I could then blame him.”

But your fear will cause you to react in highly emotional ways. Without thinking, you will escalate the tension and increase the damage. Your child will then react too – more negative than before. The immediate result is “back and forth” between two dysregulated people. Needless family fallout that adds another layer of trauma for everyone.

No winners. 

That cycle must be broken before it ever begins. My father eventually learned from his mis-steps and is still learning today. I respect him for that.

Take a minute to breathe. Remind yourself that you’re going to love them no matter what. Then and only then, respond accordingly. Never react. It’s okay to wait until morning for cooler heads to prevail. That technique worked well at my house, although I never liked it at the time. 

Be mindful. Set a healthy precedent. A deeply rooted problem won’t be fixed in one heated conversation. Progress takes great amounts of time and effort. Progress also demands patience.

With consistency, you will create results. Not in days or weeks. More likely in months and years. Don’t be discouraged. You will make mistakes and have days when you seem to be going backwards. That’s why you hit the reset button very morning.

Is this high calling? Absolutely!

Will it be difficult? You better believe it.

But I will never stop believing in you, my Silent Heroes. (Click to read Alex’s past post about Silent Heroes.)


Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special” Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE

To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love

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