When a child experiences trauma, his life is altered forever. Those who suffer loss, abuse or neglect early-on in life, may often suffer from serious psychological and emotional disorders after the traumatic event. Child trauma bricks up one’s potential in truly unimaginable ways.
Children who have experienced traumatic events need to feel safe and loved. All parents want to provide this kind of nurturing home for their children. However, when parents do not understand the effects of trauma, they may misinterpret their child’s behavior and end up feeling frustrated or resentful. Their attempts to address troubling behavior may be ineffective or, in some cases, even harmful.
This article discusses the effects of trauma, the factors concluding the trauma and how to deal with a child’s trauma to help the child.
But before that, let us understand what trauma is. This will help you support your child’s healing, your relationship with him or her, and your family as a whole.
What is Child Trauma Or Childhood Trauma?
Many children are exposed to traumatic life events. A traumatic event is one that threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others, and also causes horror, terror, or helplessness at the time it occurs. The harm can be physical or emotional, real or perceived, and it can threaten the child or someone close to him or her.
Potentially traumatic events include sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, community and school violence, medical trauma, motor vehicle accidents, acts of terrorism, suicides, and other traumatic losses.
Impact of Untreated Trauma in Children
In most cases, a child’s body and brain recover faster from a potentially traumatic experience, with no lasting harm. However, for some children, trauma delays with normal development and can have long-lasting effects. After exposure to a traumatic life event, a child may show different kinds of responses to traumatic experiences. The reactions may be influenced by his developmental level, ethnicity/cultural factors, and previous trauma exposure. Some of the common effects of childhood trauma (signs and symptoms) witnessed include :
- Body: Inability to control physical responses to stress, persistent prolonged illness, even into adulthood (heart disease, obesity)
- Cognitive development: Difficulty in thinking, learning, and concentrating, impaired memory, a problem in switching from one thought or activity to another, loss of interest in normal activities
- Emotions (feeling): Continuous feeling of low self-esteem, constant fear, inability to regulate emotions, trouble with friendships, depression, anxiety
- Behavior: Lack of impulse control, fighting, aggression, running away, substance abuse
Factors concluding the impact of traumatic events
- Age: Younger children are more vulnerable. Even young infants and toddlers who are unaware of the happening retain some sense of memories of the traumatic events. This can affect their well-being in adulthood.
- Frequency: Experiencing the same type of traumatic event multiple times, or multiple types of traumatic events, is more harmful than a single event.
- Relationships: Children with positive relationships with healthy caregivers are more likely to recover.
- Coping skills: These include intelligence, physical health, and self-esteem. These skills help children to overcome the incident.
- Sensitivity: Every child possesses some unique identity. Some are naturally more sensitive than others. The effects of trauma differ, depending on the child and the type of traumatic events experienced.
Helping your child
This is the most essential psychological intervention for a child who has experienced trauma. A child overcoming from trauma is a cascade of certain events. Although childhood trauma can have serious, lasting effects, there is hope. With the help of supportive, caring adults, children can and do recover. You can consider the following tips:
1. Immediate help
You can help your child get out of the trauma immediately by:
- Providing consistent and reliable support.
- Establishing a probable routine that the child can rely on. If this routine needs to vary, inform the child ahead of time.
- Follow the child’s lead in discussing the trauma. Let the child bring this up.
- Allow the child to talk about the trauma; however, do not strain to do this.
2. Identifying trauma triggers
To get the child out of the trauma, it is very important to know the trauma triggers. The following can be done:
- Keep a watch on behavioral patterns and reactions of the child which do not seem to “fit” in the situation. List down things which can make your child anxious, or results in a tantrum or outburst.
- Help your child avoid situations that trigger traumatic recalls, at least until more healing has occurred.
3. Avoid physical punishment
Remember the child needs patience, love, and permission to grieve. Do not try to punish the traumatized child. This can make the abused child’s stress more or panic. Try doing the following:
- Set reasonable consistent limits and expectations as parents
- Try to praise the child for desirable behavior
- Don’t take the behavior personally and allow the child to express his or her feelings without judgment. Help the child find words and other acceptable ways of expressing feelings, and offer praise when these are used.
4. Try to listen
Keep in mind about the condition of the traumatized child. Try to listen to him. You can easily do the following:
- Avoid difficult topics or uncomfortable conversations. (But don’t force the child to talk before he/she is ready)
- Take the child’s reactions seriously, correct any misinformation about the traumatic event, and reassure them that what happened was not their fault
5. Help your child learn to relax
The following can be done:
- Encourage your child to practice slow breathing, listen to calming music, or say positive things
- Teach him/her to be consistent and predictable
- Prepare your child in advance for changes or new experiences
6. Keeping a healthy and happy environment
Try to keep a healthy atmosphere at your place to keep the child and happy. You can do the following:
- Assist the child in setting small, measurable, attainable goals and celebrate their accomplishments
- Keep a track of accomplishments and achievements on a calendar so that the child can visually see their forward progress
- Celebrate your child’s accomplishments
7. Encourage self-esteem
Positive experiences can aid children to recover from trauma and increase resilience. You can practice this by :
- Help the child Master certain new skills
- Help him/her feel a sense of belonging to a community
- Help the child set and achieve goals
- Help them service others
When to seek medical treatment?
If the child’s symptoms last more than a few weeks, or if they get worse, it is advisable to seek medical help. Consulting a mental health counselor can help address the root cause of your child’s behavior and promote healing. A therapist or behavioral specialist might be able to help you understand your child and respond more efficiently.
Leading effective mental and behavioral health interventions
Did you know that timely mental health interventions can also help your child come out from the trauma? These interventions may help:
- Increase your child’s feelings of safety
- Help your child manage emotions, particularly when faced with trauma triggers
- Help your child develop a positive attitude
- Improve your child’s relationships with family members and others
A traumatic incident can disturb a child’s behavior in various ways which may be confusing or distressing. Not only this, it hampers the long-term health and well-being of the child and family members. Nevertheless, with understanding, care, and appropriate treatment all members of the family can heal and flourish after a traumatic event.
Also read about How to Help a Socially Withdrawn Child