Helping Children with Trauma

When children face difficulties, be prepared to take it slow.

Most parents can handle a child’s ordinary hurts and disappointments but feel out of their league when it comes to the aftermath of a trauma. Let’s explore some facts about trauma and then apply it to helping children.

Trauma is a shock that is so out of the ordinary the person doesn’t have a frame of reference to understand or deal with it. Trauma survivors usually don’t have words to describe the enormity of what they’ve been through. Understandably, you might think it’s important to help the person recover as quickly as possible.

To this end, many people will talk at the survivor, ask a lot of questions, and try to get her back to normal. But often what a survivor—especially a child—needs is a quiet, undemanding approach, soothing her through the shock until she can come to grips with what happened.

Trauma survivors usually feel responsible and guilty over things they should or shouldn’t have done. Surprisingly, this is a normal and healthy reaction to any traumatic experience. Such retrospection gives the mind a sense of retroactive control, lessening the helplessness experienced during a trauma.                

You can reassure the person that she’s not responsible, as long as you don’t expect it to make an immediate difference. She may need to worry about it over and over again. One conversation can’t change the slow, repetitive process of coming to grips with one’s limitations and regrets.

You can honor a survivor’s feelings of guilt while not buying into her. For instance, you could say: “Of course you’re thinking that. It’s normal to wish you’d done something differently. But it doesn’t mean you’re to blame and it doesn’t mean you didn’t care. Like the rest of us, you did the best you could under the circumstances.”                

Or you could say, “I know. You just wish you could’ve done everything right. It makes sense that you would feel that way.” Be prepared to say such things for a very long time.

Especially with traumatized children, their distress or withdrawal can be hard to take. We want to ease a child’s pain, and we seek signs that the child is returning to normal. But it can take weeks, months, or even years to integrate distress, and during that process the child may at times seem remote or sorrowful. It’s normal to cycle through such feelings, but if a child becomes stuck or consistently depressed, therapy may be needed.

You can respond to a child’s sadness by saying, “You look a little down today. Can you tell me what you’re feeling?” If the child is acting irritable or aggressive, you might say, “I can tell you’re upset about something. What’s going on?”

It may take several minutes for her to get her thoughts and words together, so keep listening and give her a chance to get started. Just asking about her feelings is helping. Your quiet presence and awareness that she is suffering is providing an emotional container for what she’s been through, even if she can’t manage a word.

Such an approach is more helpful than repeatedly asking if the child is okay. Children can sense a parent’s worry and will minimize their own distress in order to reassure the parent. The more a child senses she needs to act more normally than she really feels, the more disconnected and despairing she can become.

Parental anxiety can spur us to talk excessively. We might ask questions about things the child may need to block out temporarily. We might keep telling the child what to think and how to feel better. We may anxiously remind her she can ask for help when sensitive listening is all she needs. Let her questions or statements direct what you say, not just what you think will make her feel better. The best first aid is warm eye contact, sympathetic sounds, calming touch, and reassurance that you are there for her.

For a long time after the crisis, be patient and remind the child that everyone—whether it shows or not—continues to have a hard time after an experience like that. No looking on the bright side yet. Be prepared to listen to repeated loops of the same themes as the child gradually works it through.

Every time a child opens up with you, be as present as if you’d never heard any of it before. Hearing her out over and over takes the survivor through the many cycles necessary for gradual recovery. It’s not your words that heal her; it’s the fact that she can keep telling you what she’s feeling and thinking until she heals herself.

When the child begins to act more normally, don’t let on that her improvement is a relief to you. You can be thankful inwardly but don’t send the message that her lifted mood has made you happy. She will be improving then sliding back countless times.

Your job is to be there for her—with no expectations or timelines—as she goes up and down through her process of healing. Going to see a counselor—either separately or all together—can be an enormous help but even so it may be a long process.

When you communicate that you are concerned, curious, yet confident the child will ultimately handle this, you make each of these listening sessions a step up the ladder of recovery. Your unconditional acceptance and emotional engagement is the best cure for whatever the world might throw at her.

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