Some basics for managing trauma in your child:
In some ways, helping children recover from traumatic experiences, can be simple. In other ways, the healing process can seem endless and grueling. In order to make this process doable, let’s discuss some basic concepts you can incorporate from the get go.
• Physical contact – Be affectionate with your child. This will help him/her feel safe.
• Daily Routines – Structure during times of stress is very healing. Structure provides a sense of security. When everything feels out of control, having structure provides an anchor for the child.
• Frequent soothing and reassurance – Remind your child that he/she is safe and everything will be okay. Teach your child how to calm difficult emotions. Speak gently, yet firmly, with confidence and encouragement.
• Provide a transitional item, such as a teddy bear or special blanket. Transitional items help a child make a transition from dependence to independence. They can be a very helpful and healthy coping tool.
• Maintain eye contact. When dealing with children who have been abused, in particular, they may struggle with eye contact. Be sure and look your child in the eye often.
When children have gone through trauma, it is beneficial for parents to realize that the priority need not be on teaching him/her how to be independent. This is a time to let your child rely on you for support. There is plenty of time to teach self-sufficiency to your child after he/she has healed.
One benefit for helping your child heal is that you will gain a sense of confidence as a parent that you can take care of your child. This is important, because a child needs confident, effective parents.
Reminders for Parents:
• Self-care is not an option, it is essential. You must make sure you enjoy your life, don’t spend all your time caring for others; rest, sleep, play, eat right, exercise. You cannot help your children if you aren’t personally strong.
• Focus on an emotional connection with your child. Traumatized children are often fearful of relationships. Your job is to ensure and maintain healthy emotional connection with your child.
• Establish respect. Your child needs to respect you. How do you do this? You act respectable and respectful. Children need to hold you up as the stronger, wiser person in the relationship. You are not to be his/her equal. You are to be the person he/she turns to for guidance.
• Be sure to utilize eye contact with your child. This is done every day, every conversation, often. Teach your child to look at you when speaking and ensure you make eye contact whenever you address your child. This creates safety and security for the child.
• Avoid anger. A traumatized child may push your buttons, but rather than get angry, get creative. Learn to come up with a consequence or clever option other than anger to use with your child. Focus on connection rather than punishment.
• Trust your instincts. Don’t second guess every decision. Other parents may give you advice based on their own opinions, but at the end of the day, you know your child best and need to make your decisions based on what you believe is right for your child, without fearing other people’s judgment.
• Take care of your own “stuff.” If you find yourself being triggered negatively by your child, this is an indicator that you have work to do on yourself. The unexamined past can be repeated. Examine your own childhood “issues” and make sure you heal in order to not repeat mistakes or over-compensate with your own children. Do not try to fix yourself through your own parenting. This is a set up for disaster on all levels.
Considerations for therapy.
If the parent(s) are confident, stable, and capable, then the therapy can be directed toward the child. However, if the parents are reactive, insecure, and unsafe, then therapy for the parents is in order. If the parents find themselves becoming exasperated or overwhelmed, then they would definitely benefit from undergoing therapy and/or parent education for how to manage the distress of their child without becoming stressed out themselves.
When parents are reactive to their children’s issues, then the therapist can help the child by treating the parents’ triggers along with treating the child. When the child starts behaving differently because of his/her therapy, the parent(s) may be less reactive; however, it is not the child’s responsibility to ensure that parents are okay, it is the other way around.
One thing to remember is that children are best served by knowing their parents are in charge, and not vice versa. One of the primary purposes of parent education regarding trauma recovery is teaching the parents to assess their own effectiveness and weaknesses of parenting. When children can sense and know that their parents are strong and capable of being in charge, then they (the children) feel safe and secure. It is essential for a child’s recovery to have this sense of safety and security.
If a child seems to be more in control than the parent, or even takes on a parent role, then this needs to be adjusted. A child with this role may be a parentified child, serves as a confidant to the parent, has been given a caretaker role, or even has been allowed to be the boss. Children in these roles have a lowered sense of security and believe that there is no one “big enough” to protect him/her.
Therapy, for a parent with a child possessing the above characteristics, would best be focused on teaching the parent how to become “bigger,” “stronger,” and “older” in the child’s eyes. This is especially important when dealing with younger children.
When dealing with teenagers, the narrative needs to be slightly altered in order to avoid any power struggles. With teenagers, a more negotiating approach is recommended; however, the end result should be that the child knows who’s in charge, and it’s not the child. This must not be accomplished abusively, but rather, with love and concern for what’s best for the child.
Greenwald, R. (2001). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Healthychildren.org. (n.d.) Transitional Objects. Retrieved from: https://www.healthychildren.org /English/ages-stages/baby/Pages/Transitional-Objects.aspx#:~:text=These%20special%20comforts%20 are%20called,effective%20because%20of%20their%20familiarity.
Siegel, D.J. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the Inside Out. Penguin Group: New York, NY.
Thomas, N.L. (1997). When Love is Not Enough: A Guide to Parenting Children with RAD-Reactive Attachment Disorder. Glenwood Springs, CO: Nancy L. Thomas.
Sharie Stines, Psy.D. is a recovery expert specializing in personality disorders, complex trauma and helping people overcome damage caused to their lives by addictions, abuse, trauma and dysfunctional relationships. Sharie is a counselor at LIfeline Counseling & Education Inc., in Southern California (www.lifelinecounselingservices.org). Lifeline Counseling is a non-profit organization 501(c)(3) corporation. Sharie is also an abusive relationship recovery coach – therecoveryexpert.com