Upsetting events happen to everyone from time to time are are a normal part of life. But what if your child has experienced something traumatic? Natural disasters, terrorism, abuse, domestic violence, community violence, serious accidents, the loss of a parent, dog bites, and other dangerous or life- threatening events can affect anyone, especially children. When something very upsetting happens to a child or to their parent, or a child witnesses something traumatic, it is common for children to be in a constant anxious state of “high alert.” This anxiety can interfere with sleep, concentration, academic learning, relationships, and other areas of life.
Children often do not have the ability to understand or tell trusted adults how they feel. It can be very scary for a child to have feelings that they do not understand and do not know how to communicate. Instead they show their hurt and confusion through their behavior: defiance, anger, crying, withdrawing from people and situations, clinginess, and having what might seem like extreme reactions to things that remind them of what happened. They may develop physical stress symptoms such as stomachaches or headaches. Younger children may regress and lose developmental milestones. They might have toileting accidents, talk like a baby, or need help to do things they used to be able to do independently. School-aged children may find their grades dropping, get into fights, or deliberately harm themselves or destroy valued belongings.
When your child is experiencing stress from a traumatic event, there are things you can do to provide soothing and comfort. Here are ten things to start with.
1. Get Professional Support
If your child was physcially injured, his pediatrician may already know about it. If not, be sure to let her know what happened. She can address any medical issues or physical stress symptoms, be a valuable source of support and information, and may share resources your child can benefit from. Also find a psychologist or other mental health professional who has experience working with children who have experienced trauma. Psychological treatment can give your child a safe space to work through his feelings about what happened, and the psychologist can provide you with customized advice for how to handle trauma symptoms and behavior challenges at home.
2. Keep Your Child’s Regular Routines
Regular daily and weekly routines are the “glue” that holds a child’s world together. Routines provide stability and a sense of psychological safety. Children who have experienced trauma need to know what is coming next and that it will be safe. If your child especially enjoys a regular part of his routine, do not take it away as punishment for misbehavior. View his routines as central to his ability to cope and keep them the same as much as you can. If a change in routine is inevitable, sit down with your child ahead of time and explain what will be happening and what she can expect.
3. Make a List of What Helps
What usually helps your child when he is upset? Make a list of these things. This is something you and your child can do together, or you can simply get his input, depending on your child’s age and level of interest. The list can include toys or other objects that your child finds soothing, activities or games, photographs, songs, favorite clothing, a favorite book, etc.
Post the list somewhere where you and your child will see it often. Encourage your child to choose one or two things from the list when you see that she is struggling. You can also gather up some of these things and put them in a special basket or bag, and offer the basket when you think your child needs some relief from her anxiety.
4. Use Sensory Things to Soothe Your Child
Trauma and anxiety affect the body and the parts of the brain that relate to bodily sensations. Therefore the deepest soothing is usually sensory. Some ideas include: a blanket or piece of cloth that has a comforting texture, a favorite shirt, playdough, soothing music, soothing smells (such as essential oils), a wam shower or bath, a glass of warm milk or a drink of cold water, etc.
A Note about Food: It is common for people to soothe themselves with food. Eating causes the neurochemical dopamine to be released in the brain, reinforcing a feeling of wellbeing, and eating foods rich in carbohydrates can result in an increase in serotonin, another “feel good” brain chemical. However, using food for soothing can cause new problems to develop over time, such as unhealthy weight gain, using food as a substitute for working through unpleasant emotions, or even an addiction to food. Therefore, try to avoid using food (or sugary beverages) to soothe your child.
5. Parents are the Most Important Source of Soothing
Remember that you, as the parent, are the most important source of soothing for your child. Use your relationship with your child to soothe him, whenever possible. Doing something comforting with your child, especially activities that include healthy, loving touch, can help your child feel relaxed, peaceful, and safe. Try playing with your child or doing a favorite activity together; reading to him; hugging, holding, or rocking your child; or brushing your child’s hair. You can play games such drawing pictures on each other’s backs and trying to guess what the other person drew, or playing clapping games.
6. Teach Relaxation Strategies
Deep, slow breathing is often the best way to calm. Stopping during a stressful situation and doing deep, slow breathing together as a family can help overyone feel calmer. Children can also be taught strategies like progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and visualization. There are many child- friendly guided meditations and visualizations on YouTube. Consider choosing some together for your child to listen to when he is anxious.
7. When Your Child Has Trauma Flashbacks
Sometimes children have severe reactions in response to things that remind them of the traumatic event. When this happens to your child, keep in mind that she is reliving the traumatic event. Give plenty of body space and do not touch your child while this is happening. Make sure your child is physically safe and wait for it to pass. Then offer comfort and soothing.
Try to notice what is triggering the flasbacks. If you are not sure, ask your child. She may or may not know. Try to limit your child’s exposure to things you think may be causing the flashbacks, and let your child’s therapist know about them. When exposure does occur, be physically present to offer needed comfort, and be emotionally available. In the time immediately following the flashback, limit what you say, as your child will likely not be able to “process” much. Let your child recover at her own pace, and offer her the things you know help her feel calm and safe.
8. If Your Child Wants to Talk about the Traumatic Event
Be available if your child wants to talk about what happened, but don’t push him. Let your child be the one to bring it up, and just listen and offer support. If you do not know certain details about what happened, resist the urge to question him. Let him know that he can tell you as much or little as he would like. Older children might appreciate having a journal or special notebook to record their thoughts. Children of all ages enjoy drawing pictures or even abstract scribbles to express themselves. If your child shows you something he has drawn that is related to the traumatic event or his feelings about it, the best approach is make a thoughtful, neutral observation about the drawing rather than giving a compliment. You can also offer to keep the drawing somewhere safe. Treat the drawing with respect and appreciation for your child’s emotions; this will show him that it is safe to express his feelings. It will also help him come to accept his feelings because you are accepting them.
9. Navigating What to Tell Your Child
Sometimes a traumatic event involves ongoing aspects or details that the child does not know about. If a parent is in the hospital or there is a court case, for instance, you may feel the need to keep certain pieces of information from your child until more is known. Children are usually very aware when secrets are being kept from them, and it usually increases their stress. They reason that if things are okay, you would tell them, so if you are not telling them, it must be very bad. This may or may not be true, and certainly it can worsen a child’s stress to know certain details.
The most important thing is to work with your child’s psychologist or therapist regarding what details to share with your child. In general, if there are conversations that your child should not hear, it is best to have these somewhere where he does not know you are having them. It is important to be honest with children about what is happening while giving them the information in a way that is appropriate for their developmental level. It is also advisable to provide reassurance that it is something that the grown-ups are responsible for and the grown-ups are doing their best to take care of the situation.
If something happens that the child needs to know, then you will need to tell him. Many adults live with lifelong emotional pain because adults kept crucial information from them. One way to consider this is to ask yourself if there is anything that the child needs in order to have some closure to a situation that is ending. For instance, if a loved-one is dying, if at all possible, the child should be given a chance to say goodbye. Every situation is different and it is advisable to utilize professional support in making these decisions and in deciding how to share the information with the child.
10. Make Time to Laugh Together and Have Fun
Laughing releases endorphins in the brain and feels good. Laughing together with someone you love is even better. Find the humor in everyday things and enjoy it together. Just be sure not to laugh about something your child might find hurtful or offensive. If nothing seems very humorous in your home right now, funny animal video clips are a good place to start. Do something fun together on a regular basis and more laughter will follow.
Different things work best for different children. Your child is a unique person with individual preferences and her own personality. Start with one or two things that you think will be best for your child and introduce more as it feels comfortable and natural to do so. With the right combination of support from trusted adults, and strategies to soothe anxiety, your child can find relief from the stress and learn valuable skills that will benefit her for years to come.
Dr. Cain is a Clinical Psychologist in Buffalo, NY. She specializes in issues affecting children, including trauma and attachment. Her doctoral dissertation was an original study of PTSD and attachment, and her Master’s thesis was a literature review on PTSD in children. Dr. Cain is a member of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and is certified in tele-mental health. She has an ebook on Amazon called Help! My Child Doesn’t Listen, and offers telephone-based advising to parents who are concerned about their children. Please visit her website at www.JenniferCainPhD.com for more information.