A traumatic, distressing and frightening event can have an impact on your child’s sense of security and predictability of their world; here are some tips on parenting a traumatised child.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is an individual experience. One person’s definition may vary from the next persons. What one might have been exposed to, can be perceived completely differently by another. One definition describes trauma as:
a psychological distressing event that is outside the range of usually human experience, often involving a sense of intense fear, terror or helplessness”
Bruce Perry 1998
There are three types of trauma a child may experience:
- Acute trauma – resulting from a single stressful or dangerous event eg the sudden loss of a parent/care taker, medical procedures, accidents, natural disasters.
- Chronic trauma – resulting from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events, fear and helplessness. Examples include all forms of abuse, bullying, domestic violence.
- Complex trauma – resulting from exposure to multiple traumatic events.
If you are concerned for your child following a traumatic experience, seeing a therapist may be beneficial to allow the traumatic event to be processed.
Parents often come to therapy and want to know how they can help their child along the therapeutic journey. Below I have written some tips for parents on how to best help their traumatised child.
Children react differently to trauma
It is important to note that your child’s response to a traumatic event may be different to what you anticipate. A child’s response to trauma is very individualist and it varies from child to child. Other variables to take into consideration include their age, stage of development, personality and the impact the trauma has had on significant figures in the child’s life.
It is not uncommon for children to have a delayed reaction to a distressing event. They may seem to be coping well at first, but may experience negative reactions to the stress days, weeks or even months later on.
Talk about the traumatic event
- Reassure your child that the traumatic event is over and express that they are now in a safe environment (only if this is true). You may find that they need assurance over and over again.
- Allow your child to communicate their concerns and feelings, and listen to them. This helps them to understand, process and make meaning of what has occurred.
- Let your child know that you are interested in them and would like to hear how they are travelling.
- Communicate in an age appropriate way about the traumatic event without going into frightening details. If accurate information is withheld from the child, they will most likely fill in the blanks by drawing upon their experiences, available information and imagination. Children commonly add dangerous information to fill in the blanks.
- It is important to ensure your child hasn’t jumped to false conclusions. Young children often put the blame on themselves, believing the traumatic event occurred as a result of them being naughty or having a bad thought about someone.
- If possible, it may be helpful to talk about the distressing event as a family. Allow time for everyone to talk and communicate their thoughts and feelings. This helps the unity of the family, creates an understanding of each other, and helps every member to feel supported and heard.
- Communicate to your child how people can react, cope with and manage stress. Express that what they are feeling is normal.
Mindfulness of Your Own Reactions
Its important to be mindful that your child watches how you react to a distressing event. Your reaction to your child’s feelings and behaviour, will have an enormous impact on your child’s ability to cope and recover. Some issues to keep in mind are:
- Be understanding. Children’s behaviour following a distressing event may change eg bed wetting, sleep disturbances, and aggressive behaviour. You can visit my other article Understanding Trauma Behaviour to find out more.
- Spend extra quality time with your child, particularly before bed.
- Children look up to their parents to try to understand, respond and deal with a crisis. It is helpful when adults around them are attentive to their fears and distress, and able to comfort and support them. As a parent or caregiver, it is important that you seek support if you are finding it hard to deal with feelings, reactions, and relationships otherwise the child’s fear and distress will increase.
- Don’t uphold the expectation that your child is feeling the same way you do. Everyone is different and has different emotions.
- Give your child a sense of control and autonomy over their life. Minor changes can have a huge impact eg allowing your child to choose which fruit is packed in their lunch, whether they want to shower before or after dinner. This helps the child feel more in control of their life, which is incredibly important after a traumatic experience. Children that feel helpless have been found to experience more severe stress symptoms.
- Try to not be over protective of your child. It’s natural to want to keep your family members close to you after a traumatic experience, but you also want your child to feel like the world is a safe place to be in.
Family routines after a traumatic event
Some suggestions that could be helpful to your family are:
- Maintain a regular routine as much as possible. This helps the child feel reassured by the sense of predictability in their life.
- If routines are impacted, reassure your child that their routine will be back to normal soon. It may be challenging for some children to manage their usual routine such as attending school or performing house hold chores. It is helpful to not push it and to allow them time to get back on their feet.
- Introducing stricter standards or behaviour and new changes in routine will be unhelpful. Leave that for another time.
- Maintaining family roles as much as you can is really important. For example, don’t insist that your child takes on more responsibility around the house than usual, or uphold an expectation for them to meet the emotional needs of a parent.
Practical strategies for helping your child recover from trauma
- Allow time for activities such as sport, games, play, time with friends and encourage exercise outside.
- Allow time for fun. Sharing memories of laughter and good times with family members can help everyone feel a bit better.
- Often times after a traumatic event, a child’s appetite may be affected. If they don’t feel like eating at usual meal times, offer them regular snacks throughout the day instead.
- Ensure your child is getting enough sleep and rest.
- Limit stimulants such as sugars and coloured foods.
- Help your child to physically relax. This can be done by having warm baths, story times and cuddles.
When to get help?
As discussed in my article Understanding Trauma Triggers, trauma can be processed naturally, however if the distressing event is not processed, it could develop into PTSD.
The three main signs of PTSD are anxiety around triggers; avoidance behaviours and invasive thoughts. Research recommends that if trauma behaviours and symptoms continue after six weeks, it would be beneficial for the child’s mental health to see a mental health profession such as a counsellor. Please see my other article on treating childhood PTSD for more.
Author: Larissa Watter, BA Counselling.
Larissa Watter is a Brisbane counsellor, passionate about working with children. She is currently furthering her studies by undertaking a Certificate in Child Centred Play Therapy.
To make an appointment with Larissa Watter try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.