If your child has experienced trauma, a safe and therapeutic environment is necessary to foster healing and recovery. In this article, Lisa Danylchuk provides guidance and strategies for understanding and helping your child through this difficult time. “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways” -Russell Barkley, Psychologist
By Lisa Danylchuk, EdM, LMFT
It can be particularly challenging for adults raising children who have experienced trauma to know what to do or how to best support their child’s experience. This article serves as a guide and foundation for caregivers raising or supporting traumatized children. We will cover how to build a sense of safety, support emotional processing and encourage resilience. If your child has experienced trauma, I highly recommend also finding a therapist or therapeutic environment to support them in their healing and growth.
Keep this quote in mind as you read:
“The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways”
-Russell Barkley, Psychologist
How do I know if my child has experienced trauma?
Trauma can include an act of violence, abuse or threatened death, a sudden loss or change in life or significant relationships. Trauma can impact mood, attention, behavior and functioning at school, home, or even on the job for those children old enough to work.
A single traumatic event can cause problematic symptoms, but all too often children are exposed to multiple experiences and layers of trauma, making the symptoms and effects more complex. Whether your child has had a single or many experiences, here are three essential ways to support a child in their recovery from trauma.
1) Create emotional safety
All children, all beings, thrive with nurturing, protection and a felt sense of worth and connection to those around them. When trauma occurs, our sense of safety is threatened and is in immediate need of repair. With our without traumatic experience, children thrive when they can establish a secure attachment to their caregivers. There are four ways to encourage a secure attachment relationship between you and your child, and all the words start with the letter “s” so it is easy to remember. To encourage healthy attachment, you want to reinforce that your child feels:
- Soothed and
This means acknowledging their feeling states and seeing them for their talents, gifts and positive qualities. It also means reinforcing a sense of safety physically, mentally and emotionally, and soothing the child when that sense of safety becomes threatened. You can also encourage a sense of security by being a stable influence in the child’s life – if the child knows where to find you and can reasonably predict how you will respond to them, they will likely feel safer in exploring themselves and their relationship to the world. This sense of emotional safety can help reduce and/or mitigate the negative impacts of traumatic experiences.
2) Support emotional processing
Children (and the adults they grow into) communicate in a myriad of ways. When a person of any age has been through a traumatic experience, communication is a key piece of emotional processing. Often the experience is one of getting the trauma out of the individual and into open air, onto paper, or into the supportive ear of a loved one. Consider your child’s developmental level – how do they communicate with you? How to they express themselves best? This could be through speech, movement, dance, writing, drawing, play… consider the variety of expressive outlets your child has access to and give them opportunities to express. The mistake many well-intentioned adults make is to receive a child’s refusal to communicate as an indicator that they should stop asking. While you don’t want to sound like a parrot, you do want to offer consistent and repeated opportunities for your child to express. Often times a child will need to reach a certain stage of readiness before communicating and moving through emotions, and they may feel shame about what they have experienced. Consider how you can repeatedly offer them opportunities to express. Do not force it and do not close the door.
There is an expression about emotional processing that may help you to remember the importance of emotional processing – “Feel it to heal it.” If your child is avoiding feeling it may be because the emotions or memories are too intense. Remember that your presence and efforts to make them feel seen, safe, soothed and secure are helpful and that part of your role as a parent is to create a safe container for them to feel the feelings associated with their experiences. If you have trouble with this, consider seeking out a therapist to help offer this contained space for emotional process. Encourage your child to engage in healthy ways of coping with intense emotions, and talk to them about any unhealthy ways they may be attempting to cope.
3) Build resilience and consider new practices to help calm, energize and balance the nervous system
Much of modern trauma theory and practice is based on the understanding that trauma impacts the nervous system and brain. Thus, I highly recommend whole body interventions that incorporate the nervous system and impact brain function. Even things as simple as exercise and mindfulness can have a strong healing and reparative impact, so don’t underestimate the value of these, and be creative in engaging your child in the practice that suits them best. Yoga, meditation, martial arts, dance, sports, or even simple walks with the dog can have a healing impact. If your child seems anxious or over-activated, consider calming practices, while if they appear to have lost their energy consider engaging them in an activity that starts slow but build to stimulate their nervous system. Watch how they behave after the activity to determine whether it is moving them in a helpful direction or not. Remember that having emotions surface is not necessarily bad – you want to encourage your child to feel feelings in a way that is safe and contained. Often it is you the parent creating the safety and containment.
As a review: Encourage your child to feel safe, seen, soothed and secure. Encourage emotional processing and include the brain and body in this. Discourage isolation and any negative coping skills you may see, including overeating, alcohol or drug use, and self-harm. Get help from a qualified therapist if your feel your child’s experience is beyond your capacity to cope, and get support for yourself as well, in the form of therapy, information, social support and your own self care.
There are many emerging therapies that help in trauma processing, including EMDR, trauma-sensitive yoga, neurofeedback, internal family systems (IFS) work, and even drama therapy, using theater as an expressive outlet. Do not give up until you find something that helps your child. Also note that your child’s healing may challenge your own growth and be an emotional journey for you. Much of the information highlighted above we can apply to ourselves and to how we treat the child aspects of ourselves. Continue on with courage, and please reach out for help if you have further questions, or concerns.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk (about complex trauma and healing methods – for parents)
A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes (for kids)
The Attachment Connection: Parenting a Secure & Confident Child Using the Science of Attachment Theory by Ruth P. Newton