All parents want to protect their children from things that can unsettle or harm them. But sadly, there are many things in life that even the most conscientious of parents can’t control. Our children may witness or experience traumatic events despite our best efforts to shield them. When this happens, they may have difficulty bouncing back. Sleep disturbances, sadness, anger, fear, or other symptoms of trauma may plague a traumatized child long after the traumatic event has ended.
What is a Trauma?
Trauma is a psychological reaction to highly stressful events, particularly those that threaten life or safety. When an experience is considered traumatic, it means that the coping resources of the person witnessing or experiencing it are not enough to deal with the impact of the event, and some degree of psychological shock or breakdown occurs. Events that most people consider traumatic include vehicular accidents, crimes, natural disasters and physical or sexual abuse. Although parents may think that trauma results only from catastrophic events like war or rape, it can actually occur as a result of more normal and common events. For instance, a child can be traumatized by being chased by a dog, by a harsh reprimand from a teacher, from a threatening bully, or from being laughed at while giving an oral report. What makes an event traumatic differs from person to person, as individual coping abilities must be taken into account. Personality factors, psychological profile and past history all play a role in producing a traumatic reaction. A trauma response often includes symptoms like reliving the event over and over again (obsessing about it; experiencing intrusive thoughts), panic attacks, nightmares, numbing and fog responses, avoiding people, places and things that trigger a memory of the event, depressed and/or angry mood and increased nervousness (startle response).
How can Parents Help Children Cope with Trauma?
Parental support is critical when a child is dealing with trauma. Unlike adults, younger children don’t yet have the ability to understand what they are going through. Not only is the original event traumatic, but their trauma symptoms too, can be traumatic. For instance, physical symptoms like tremors and nightmares, mental symptoms like obsessions and hallucinations, and emotional symptoms like fear and anxiety can be overwhelming for a child to be experiencing.
The first line of business is to help children manage their emotions. Encourage them to talk about their feelings. A traumatized child may talk about the same thing over and over again, and this is okay. The content of the sharing is less important than the process of getting things out. If a child finds difficulty in expressing what he is going through verbally, either because of age or because of the trauma, then consider non-verbal ways of venting emotions. Letting it all out can also be done using drawings and pictures, clay sculptures and toys, play-acting, and story-telling.
Second, give your child a rational explanation of the traumatic event, that is appropriate to his or her age. The more information the child has, the less he or she is likely to generalize the event to other situations. For instance, knowing that a car crashed because it skidded on the snow can help a child feel safe in cars with good snow tires and in cars driving on dry roads. Without this information, the child may conclude that all cars are dangerous at all times. (While this is in fact true, the healthy state of mind is one of sufficient denial that a person can comfortably drive and be driven at all times. Phobic and traumatized people, on the other hand, over-exaggerate the likelihood of a catastrophic event occuring again, such that they can’t live in a normal way.)
When a child is suffering rather mild symptoms, parents may find that self-help interventions are sufficient. For instance, learning how to do EFT (emotional freedom technique) with the child may complete calm the youngster’s nervous system. However, parents may prefer to take their child to a child psychologist who practices EFT or EMDR. Both of these techniques are used to rapidly heal the trauma of one-time events. If the child is experiencing many symptoms of trauma, it is essential that parents DO NOT try the self-help approach. Instead, they should take their child to a mental health professional who is specifically trained in the treatment of post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD). PTSD is the name for the cluster of symptoms that occur in reaction to a traumatic event. The “p” in this label for “post traumatic” points to the fact that trauma symptoms can suddenly occur months, years or even decades after the original traumatic event(s). The mind/body seems to wait for the “right time” to release the memory of the event(s).
Technqiues like EFT and EMDR can also be used as part of a longer therapy addressing more chronic forms of trauma (such as being subjected to chronic bullying, physical abuse or incest). These and other interventions are specifically designed to heal both the memories and the bodily reactions and return the child to his normal state. In addition, the Bach Flower Remedy called “Rescue Remedy” can help reduce temporary and chronic symptoms of trauma and is especially effective for home-management of symptoms inbetween psychotherapy sessions.
The good news is that children respond well to treatment of trauma. They can experience a complete healing of their symptoms and a return to “normalcy.” In fact, children are often even happier, calmer and more mature after trauma therapy than they were before the traumatic event(s) occurred.