Trauma can be defined as a “deeply distressing or disturbing experience” (Google dictionary). I like this definition because we each experience traumatic events in our lives and we each experience them differently. The American Psychological Association states that “more than two thirds of children report experiencing a traumatic event by age 16”. There are several events that are usually associated with a traumatic response in children such as: all forms of abuse, bullying, car accidents, the death of a loved one, witnessing death, someone threatening to cause harm to them or someone they love, a natural disaster, war, school and community violence, and many many more events.
Trauma often triggers the sympathetic nervous system causing children to have an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, stomach aches, racing thoughts, and sweaty palms. “During a traumatic event, the nervous system goes into survival mode (the sympathetic nervous system) and sometimes has difficulty reverting back into its normal, relaxed mode again (the parasympathetic nervous system)” (Pschology Today, 2010). This can be very difficult for a child to understand and manage. Traumatic responses can also be manifested by bed-wetting, jumpy reactions and hyper-vigilance, nightmares, and behavior changes. The American Psychology Association reports “A significant number of children in American society are exposed to traumatic life events. A traumatic event is one that threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others and also causes horror, terror, or helplessness at the time it occurs.” Some reactions include: “the development of new fears, separation anxiety (particularly in young children), sleep disturbance, nightmares, sadness, loss of interest in normal activities, reduced concentration, decline in schoolwork, anger, somatic complaints, irritability” (American Psychology Association).
While trauma can be devastating, very difficult to work through, and can affect child development, the good news is that the majority of children will return to their prior levels of functioning and have proven to show high levels of resiliency. This is especially true of children with parents who are loving, supportive, and proactive in helping their children navigate the stressors they encounter.
In many instances, seeking the help of a mental health professional will help provide the best treatment and outcome for your child that has gone through a traumatic event. However, there are things as a parent that you can do to help your child.
- Stay calm and in control of your emotions as best you can. Often times the children look to their parents for how they respond to what’s going on. The parents’ strong or negative responses can inadvertently elicit strong or negative responses in their children. During a traumatic experience children often feel very overwhelmed as they are experiencing several different emotions. Some of these emotions may even be new for them. As parents, our job is to help them learn how to navigate these emotions. By staying calm and not overreacting or putting our own emotions into the experience we can help them know that they can rely on us.
- Don’t try and make them talk, but give a listening ear if they do come to talk to you. I have seen a lot of parents try and get their children to talk about the traumatic event, however, this can be counterproductive and lead the child to shut down. Encourage them to talk and ask questions and if the child comes to you and wants to talk then make sure you can give them your full attention as you listen and validate what they say. Things like “I can see that this is really hard for you”, “This was not your fault”, “Feeling scared (mad, angry, hurt, alone, empty) makes sense and I will be here for you no matter what”, “thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with me, I know it can be hard to talk about”, “ I love you”, can help a child feel heard and supported.
- Explore activities and talents that your child can do to help relieve stress and create an outlet for their emotions. Art, dance, sports, writing/journaling, singing, and music can give children healthy outlets to express their emotions. While being careful not to overwhelm or overload them, utilizing classes and activities where they can build skills and talents can help them learn effective and healthy coping strategies.
- When your child becomes emotionally dysregulated, help your child learn to use healthy and effective coping strategies. Helping children label their emotion(s), ranking it on a scale of 1-10, and having a list of things they can do to de-escalate will help them learn to effectively identify and manage their own emotions that will also be of benefit to them in their later life. Skills such as journaling/writing how they are feeling, doing a workout, reading, listening to music that can calm them, coloring, brushing or petting a pet, playing with play-dough/sand/kinetic sand, etc., are all healthy activities children can do to help cope with strong emotions. Noticing when your child is calming down and asking them to rank their emotion can help them identify that these activities are working for them. It is often helpful to make a list of things to do while your child is stable so that when they do become dysregulated they have the list you can refer to… trust me when I say it is hard to come up with the list when they are dysregulated as they will most likely have a very difficult time reasoning.
Helping your children cope with traumatic events can be very difficult and overwhelming. Trained therapists who are skilled in trauma therapies can be of great help and assistance to both you and your child during this time.
Here are some other great resources to help parents:
(CeLisa is a certified Social Worker and works as a pediatric and family therapist)