As a parent, the last thing you ever want to deal with is trauma that affects your child, but there are many situations where childhood trauma can occur, and most are likely out of your control.
Child trauma can occur when there’s family violence or an event such as violence at school. Natural disasters, serious accidents, or family substance use disorders are sources of childhood trauma. Illnesses and injuries can cause trauma—for example, a childhood dog attack can cause significant emotional damage.
We want to be able to protect our children, and when they experience trauma that’s outside of our control it can be extremely painful for you as a parent.
There are certain things you can do following a traumatic event that will help your child heal, even if you can’t erase the trauma.
Watch for Signs of PTSD
First, you want to keep an eye on your child for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. This will often need professional treatment. It’s normal to experience some symptoms similar to PTSD or heightened fear or anxiety after a traumatic event, but if these symptoms are ongoing, it could signify a disorder.
Symptoms of PTSD can include changes in eating and sleeping patterns, extreme clinginess, or seeming to re-experience the traumatic event in dreams or even when playing. Complete avoidance of anything that could remind a child of the traumatic event can be a sign of PTSD, as can emotional detachment or numbness.
Try to Create a Calm Environment
It’s difficult to stay calm when your child has experienced trauma because that likely means you have as well.
However, after something traumatic or disturbing happens, try to remain calm yourself and keep your home environment calm for your child.
When a child experiences something traumatic, they naturally look to the adults around them to feel reassured. Even if you have your own set of fears or anxieties as a result of the traumatic event, don’t talk about them with your child. Keep your tone of voice even and calm and practice self-care so that you can create that positive, calming environment your child needs.
Your own mental health is incredibly important when you’re parenting a child who has experienced trauma.
While you shouldn’t constantly try to talk about your sense of anxiety or bring up the traumatic event repeatedly if your child wants to talk or share their concerns, don’t minimize them.
Your natural inclination might be telling your child not to worry, but rather than doing that, let your child know you understand why they are worried.
Work on maintaining your family’s routines as much as possible, as well. This means mealtimes, bath times and other activities your child is used to doing.
If you have to relocate for some reason, try to create a new set of routines in that environment and follow them.
Learn How Your Child Copes
Every child is different, and as a result, every child is going to cope with trauma exposure differently. Try to learn how your child copes best and then help them do that.
For example, some children might prefer to be alone as part of their coping strategies, while others might want to be surrounded by loved ones as much as possible. Let your child not only use the strategies that make them feel best but also let them know that it’s perfectly normal and okay to feel and express a variety of emotions.
No matter how your child copes, don’t take it personally. Parents can sometimes be the target of the emotions their child is experiencing, and this may mean they receive their anger.
Your child may be acting out, but it’s not really directed toward you.
Engage Your Child in Conversation
Talking to your child doesn’t mean you’re forcing them to relive their trauma over and over again Instead let your child know that you are there are ready to talk anytime they need to, without necessarily guiding the conversation.
Your child should feel acknowledged and validated, even about certain unrealistic fears they may have.
While engaging your child is important when they’re ready to talk, don’t try to pressure your child into talking.
Get Your Child Moving
Physical activity can be a good way to heal from trauma for children and adults alike. There are a lot of advantages of encouraging physical activity for your child, such as participation in an organized sport.
First, when you move, it can help stimulate the nervous system. This combats the feeling of being “stuck” that can occur when you experience trauma. Physical activity can also help release endorphins or feel-good chemicals into your child’s body and brain.
It can boost their energy levels, allow them to blow off steam in a healthy way, and if they’re doing an organized team sport, they may be able to meet new people as well.
When to Get Professional Help
There’s sometimes only so much you can do for your child when they’ve gone through trauma. The feelings associated with the trauma will usually start to fade, but for some children, they don’t, and as was touched on above, this can indicate the need for help from a trauma specialist or other mental health professional.
Some of the warning signs your child may need professional help include:
- After six weeks your child doesn’t seem to be getting better and may even be getting worse
- Your child’s schoolwork and functionality are suffering
- Your child is having nightmares or flashbacks
- Your child starts to experience physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches
- Your child is completely withdrawing from friends or family
- Your child or teen seems to be experiencing suicidal thoughts
Trauma is terrible, and especially if your child experiences it, but there are things you can do to help them work through their feelings in a healthy way. You should also consider enlisting the help of a professional during this time.