In a recent post, I briefly outlined the myriad of children’s reactions and responses to trauma by age group. I have since realized that there weren’t enough strategies and tips for adults to help children and youth through traumatic events. I will offer additional tips and strategies to help children who have experienced trauma with developing effective coping skills. It can’t be over stressed that adults are models for coping.
Trauma can be vaguely defined as: a deeply distressing or disturbing experience involving possible severe emotional or mental distress. It is important to note that it is not the event that determines whether something is traumatic to someone, but the individual’s experience of the event and the meaning they attach to it. Trauma has sometimes been defined in reference to circumstances that are outside the realm of normal human experience.
Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions in which an individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or an individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity. When we consider that trauma is experienced differently, children’s response to trauma is likewise individualistic in manifestation. Moreover, there are individually perceived or real traumatic events such as:
- Sexual and/or physical abuse
- Natural disasters[hurricanes, floods, fires…]
- Being in or witnessing a serious car accident
- Community violence[shooting, mugging, assault, bullying, …]
- Domestic or family violence, dating violence
- War or political violence[terrorist acts, civil wars…]
- Serious injuries or life-threatening illnesses
- Sudden, unexpected or violent death of someone close
When young children experience a traumatic stressor, their first response is usually to look for reassurance from the adults who care for them.Whatever the age of your child, it’s important to offer extra reassurance and support following a traumatic event. A child’s reaction to a disaster or traumatic event can be greatly influenced by their parents’ response, so it’s important to educate yourself about traumatic stress.
The more you know about the symptoms, effects, and treatment options, the better equipped you’ll be to help your child recover. With your love and support, the unsettling thoughts and feelings of traumatic stress can start to fade and your child’s life can return to normal in the days or weeks following the event. Useful tips and strategies to employ include:
#1: minimize media exposure
Don’t let your child watch the news or check social media just before bed, and make use of parental controls on the TV, computer, and tablet to prevent your child from repeatedly viewing disturbing footage. As much as you can, wtch news reports with your child and help put information in context.
#2: engage your child
You can’t force your child to recover from traumatic stress, but you can play a major role in the healing process by simply spending time together and talking face to face, free from TV, games, and other distractions. Do your best to create an environment where your kids feel safe to communicate what they’re feeling and to ask questions with ongoing opportunities to talk.
Acknowledge and validate your child’s concerns. Reassure your child that the event was not their fault, you love them, and it’s okay to feel upset, angry or scared. Be honest, and do some ‘normal’ things together unrelated to the event.
#3: encourage physical activities
Physical activity can burn off adrenaline, release mood-enhancing endorphins, and help your child to sleep better at night. Find a sport that your child likes to help rouse the nervous system from that ‘stuck’ feeling that may follow a traumatic experience. Once a child gets moving, they’ll start to feel; more energetic. Take younger children to a playground, activity center, or arrange playdates with peers.
#4: feed your child a healthy diet
The food your child eats can have a profound impact on his or her mood and ability to cope with traumatic stress. Processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary drinks and snacks can create mood swings and worsen symptoms of traumatic stress. Conversely, feeding eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can help your child better cope with the ups and downs that follow a tragic event. Focus on overall diet, not specific foods. Be a role model. Cook more foods at home, and enlist the help of your child in the preparation of meals, too.
#5: rebuild trust and safety
Trauma can alter the way a child sees the world, making it suddenly seem a much more dangerous and frightening place. Your child may find it more difficult to trust both their environment and other people. You can help by rebuilding your child’s sense of safety and security. Create routines for stability and structure. Minimize stress at home, to make sure your child has space and time to rest, play, do school work. Most of all, manage your own stress. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help a child overcome traumatic events.
Speak of the future and make plans. Please, do your best to keep your promises. You can rebuild your child’s trust by being trustworthy. Be consistent and follow through on what you say you’re going to do.
If a question arises that you don’t know the answer to, don’t be afraid to admit it. You only jeopardize your child’s trust by making things up, even if your intentions are honorable. Give them honest respect, support, and help them to remain positive and optimistic. Remember that children often personalize situations, and you will need to provide your loving reassurance to help then cope with trauma afterwards. Adults are role models for coping!