Make your child feel safe. When your child has gone through traumatic experience, slow down and consider what he needs. What he really, really needs. Safety is a vital part of recovery. Having open conversations about how to feel safe and about what worries him is important. If he seeks you out more often than is typical, it’s ok. He may find extra hugs to be soothing. He may also seek out extra cuddle time or a pat on the back. Touch (only when it is welcomed) is a healing part of trauma and gives the child a feeling of security. When your child has experienced trauma your comfort and support help him on the path of a healthy and desirable recovery. As a parent or a caregiver, it may be quite difficult to witness your child dealing with the aftermath of traumatic event. You may experience guilt for not having been able to protect your child or have questions why this happened to him. However, no matter what, you are now the person who can actively participate in this child’s recovery from trauma. I would like to share several steps that will empower you and your child.
Educate yourself. There used to be a common belief that when children experience trauma, they will be too young to remember… or that they will outgrow the bad memories. However, the research shows that this is not the case and that it is more important to talk to your child about what they have gone through. Consider the child’s developmental age as you engage him in the dialogue about what they thought happened and what they need to feel safe and well again. Often times, children who have experienced trauma tend to act out more and experience decreased tolerance for frustration. Tantrums… meltdowns… We all have a name for these behaviors. However, someone who has been traumatized engages in these behaviors because this is his way of asking for help or saying that something does not feel right. Instead of punishing the child for the behavior, you now become the detective to identify what is the root cause for his behaviors and help him problem-solve. Examples of when the child may act out is when he experiences hypervigilance or heightened anxiety.
Turn to the professional. Although, anxiety among other issues may last for several months after the traumatic event, reach out for immediate help if you notice that your child is experiencing panic attacks, becomes paranoid, or has thoughts of wanting to harm himself. PTSD is such a complex diagnosis and in order to understand it the best way possible, it is necessary to reach out for help from professional. Even though there is much stigma related to mental illness, it is better to be proactive and talk to the professional as you create healing environment for your child, which then also supports the idea about the safety. Even though, not every traumatic event will lead to PTSD diagnosis, it is better to be proactive and allow the professional to offer you and your child necessary support. Besides, when your own mind is in worry mode it might be helpful to get the outsiders perspective anyways. Professional can also offer resources that are useful overall. Even if it is some books that talk about PTSD. There are several out there for children and adults.
Structure, consistency, and routine – key in recovery! Often times, when child has experienced trauma, he needs reassurance of knowing what is going to happen in 5 minutes… one hour… one day or a week from now. It does not mean that you have to have your days filled with activities but rather that you have scheduled relaxation time, work time, chore time, and play time. This is important so that the child can predict what to expect next. In order to accomplish this task, it might be helpful to implement chore charts or daily activities charts so that the child can keep track of what to expect next. This is empowering to him and will make you feel better. Having the routine in place offers reassurance to the child that life will be manageable again because traumatic event brings chaos and uncertainty. By setting the routine for the day, it helps the child to know what to expect and most likely relieves the triggers.
Be gentle with transitions and change. Some children may need to know about when change happens as soon as possible. When there is a structure in place, it offers control as well as a way to know what is about to happen. This is especially true during the transitioning times when you need to take the child to school, to the grocery store, doctor’s appointment or when there are people coming over. Learn from your child what works best: if you should let him know way early or minutes or hours ahead of time. Some children who have symptoms of anxiety can also perseverate on the worries that they have, which may make things worse. So, telling them too early may lead them to think about it non-stop and this would not be beneficial. Remember, change can be a trigger for someone with traumatic experience. There are other triggers to consider, such as loud noises or when you expect company. Depending on the trauma, as a caregiver, you need to become mindful of what might set your child off. It is easier to have a plan and be proactive rather than put out fires.
Choices are empowering. When your child experienced trauma, he did not have a choice to leave the situation but rather endured the circumstances with the lack of control. People who have been exposed to trauma desire to maintain control in order to feel safe. Children with the trauma history may come across as manipulative if they are not given enough opportunities to exercise control in their environment. As a caregiver or a parent, you can offer control during mealtime when you make couple of different choices for food available to your child. Another way to offer control is by letting him choose what clothes to wear for the day. Of course, these are just couple of examples where your child could exercise control with no negative outcome. Use your creativity and stay a step ahead of him so that you can come up with ways he can feel like he is in control.
Building on his strengths. Think about the different things your child enjoyed doing before the traumatic event. Did he engage in any sports, play outdoors, or have friends over? Encourage him to return to some of these activities as any enjoyable interest will help the child to return to normalcy and increases his self-confidence. Additionally, having friends over or visiting relatives offers a perfect opportunity to engage in social skills rather than being withdrawn. When the child enjoys himself in the aftermath of trauma, he will feel distracted and this is good because he experiences a sense of normalcy and is able to forget about the traumatic event – even if for a short period of time.
Make a safe place. When your child feels overwhelmed or triggered give him the chance to go to his safe space. When we think about PTSD, safety is an essential part of the recovery process. For your child the safe space can be a part of the room or even a corner in the room specially designed for him with some floor pillows, squishy balls or fidgets, or anything else that he might find helpful as he calms his body and mind. Recognize and validate your child’s feelings. If your child expresses worry, do not downplay his worry by saying “there is nothing to worry about” as he may feel then like his feelings do not matter. Downplaying his feelings may lead him to feel embarrassed or that he is being criticized.
There are good days and bad days. Consider that your child’s abilities vary daily. There are days where it may seem that he is getting better and that he is moving in the right direction; he demonstrates how he is able to focus on tasks and finish what you have asked of him… AND there are days where he does not pay attention, and instead, his behaviors show regression. I would like to encourage you to allow him space to deal with these changes. Just kind of like adults in any given day, children also have good days and bad days, but especially so when they are trying to figure things out in the aftermath of trauma. Children cope in different ways; some children enjoy being distracted by their friends and desire to spend time with them. There are other children who prefer to be alone. Let your child know that it is ok to feel anger, sadness, and/or guilt. Talk to your child about feelings. Help him identify different feelings. This activity is important because sometimes children have a difficult time recognizing what they are feeling.
“I’m right here.” This is a simple and meaningful phrase that positively impacts your child. Considering the trauma that your child has experienced, the most important thing you can offer to your child is you. No matter what – show up for your child. Be reliable and constant. Your child looks to you for reassurances after the traumatic events have taken place. Do not discuss your anxieties related to the event with your child or when he is around. It is important to be aware of the tone of your voice because your child is tuned in to you, and even if you don’t think he is listening – he is. However, it is important to talk to your child about the traumatic event and allow him to ask questions. It is better for him to get the information from a safe and trusted adult. Don’t assume that your child is worried about the same aspects of trauma as you are. It is better to model openness and honesty to your child and have a dialogue about the traumatic event because the transparent communication teaches your child that it is ok for him to lean on you and to express the worries he might have openly instead of suppressing them. And it is ok to say, “I don’t know.” The child needs to know that not all questions have answers. Besides, the answers don’t necessarily make things ok.
Help with coping. You have the role to teach your child how to cope with anxiety, intrusive images, or other symptoms stemming from trauma. One of the exercises that I use quite a bit in my practice is deep breathing. Allow the child to notice how the air moves in and out of his body. Guide him to fill his belly with air. When the child experiences anxiety, his breathing is more likely to be shallow and it is uncomfortable. Model to your child how to slow down the breath as you inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Sometimes it is helpful to imagine that you smell a flower. Allow the child to “paint” the flower in his mind and encourage him to share with you how he thinks the flower would smell. The deep breaths with this type of visualization are helpful in calming down his body and mind.
I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in PA. After receiving my MSW at the University of Pittsburgh, I have dedicated my professional career on working with children and their families as I advocate for their needs in our educational system.