Whenever a child is exposed to a traumatic event, caregivers and loved ones often struggle to know how to help. Parenting a child or youth who has experienced trauma can be isolating. It may seem that no one else understands what your family is going through or how to react to your child’s difficult behaviors. Unpredictable and/or aggressive behaviors, withdrawing from others, heightened emotional responses, and ongoing worry are a few of the symptoms that a child exposed to trauma may exhibit.
It is important to make sure that a traumatized child is given the help and support they need. It is just as critical that specialized support is given to caregivers that are interacting with the child. This is because the most influential indicator for healing after trauma is the positive support of those closest to the child.
My favorite metaphor to use when I explain to parents the importance of receiving their own counseling is to consider the oxygen mask directions given by flight attendants. We have all sat through the instructions that precede takeoff. The attendant will produce an oxygen mask and a voice over the intercom explains the importance of securing your own mask before helping anyone else. This is because a person can not help anyone if they becomes incapacitated due to lack of oxygen. In the same way, a parent will be prepared to help their child when they receive their own education and support.
Getting professional support from a therapist that has experience working with trauma is an important step forward. Here are some additional ways that you can help a child or youth struggling from the impact of a difficult event or situation:
Increase your child’s feelings of safety
Remind your child that in the current situation they are safe and you are there to ensure safety. A child impacted by trauma may struggle with an overactive internal alarm that senses danger even when none is present. This is a normal reaction for anyone who has experienced a situation where they perceived their life to be threatened. Acknowledge how your child feels and provide encouragement that they are safe right now. Encourage them to use the five senses to challenge any ideas of threat in the situation. For example,“Is there anything right now you can see that is going to hurt you? Is there anything you can hear that will hurt you?” and continue having your child talk through the sensations they are experiencing in the moment. This helps to ground them in the current reality of safety rather than living in fear from the past.
Identify and manage emotions
When a person has experienced trauma, they sometimes become over-reactive to situations and experience extreme, intense emotions. In children or youth, this may manifest in negative or even aggressive behaviors toward themselves or others. As their helper, it is important to remain calm so that your child has a safe person to walk them through the experience of these intense emotions. Begin teaching your child how to notice and name their emotions. Practice deep breathing and teach them how to use breathing when they notice upset feelings in their body. Other coping skills can include, asking for a cool-down time, hugging out the feelings, listening to music or an audio book, drawing, or other healthy coping strategies. A trained therapist can help you and your child identify other ways to use coping skills to address difficult emotions.
Give your child a sense of control over his/her life
One hallmark of a trauma experience is that the victim is rendered helpless in a situation. This is why a child may begin lashing out and have a difficult time following rules or directions. Allow situations that give your child the opportunity to have a sense of appropriate control. For smaller children allowing them to choose their clothes, items for lunch, and when they will do chores, are simple ways to give them a sense of control. Older youth may benefit from increased time with peers or engaging in activities they choose. Of course the older the child, the more compromise may be required, but even this discussion allows opportunity for connection if the caregiver remains calm.
Trauma can affect children’s behavior in ways that may be confusing or distressing. Those who care for a child impacted by trauma are best able to facilitate healing when they are provided with education and support. With understanding, care, and proper treatment (when necessary), all members of the family can heal and thrive after a traumatic event.