Trauma is a word you have probably heard a lot recently, especially in the news, with issues like school shootings, kidnappings, tornadoes etc. Maybe you’ve wondered, “What does trauma really mean?” Especially, how does it affect our kids?
A good definition of trauma is an experience that is intense and overwhelming that may involve serious loss, threat of loss or harm to a person’s physical and/or emotional well-being. It’s important to note that trauma can occur from just one experience or many experiences.
Children who experience trauma don’t have a lot of good coping skills and can get overwhelmed very quickly. When children get overwhelmed, they tend to express it in their behavior – which then makes it difficult for the whole family. Some behaviors may look like irritability, anger and/or tantrums that occur several times a day, sometimes for no reason. These tantrums can sometimes go on for a long time (more than 15-20 minutes) and the child is either unable to calm or difficult for the parent to try and soothe the child. These children can have difficulty focusing, they have difficulty sleeping , they are scared easily or you may also see a regression in development. For example regression in toilet training, speech, etc.
When a child experiences trauma, either physical or mental, it’s important for parents try to look at the world from their child’s perspective and to see whether from that viewpoint a traumatic event has occurred.
Some basic tools that parents can use to help their children can include keeping a routine, reassuring their children they are safe, explaining events that are going to happen during the day (for example – today, we are going to the grocery store and then to grandma’s house), practice good boundaries and also get on the floor and just play with their child by following their child’s lead. Let your children know that you are open and available to them.
Trauma can disrupt attachment patterns, as their most basic needs like trust and safety have been infringed upon. They need to hear that it’s not their fault, how they feel is valid and normal. “It’s Ok to be sad, Mommy feels sad sometimes too.” “Do you think a hug might help you feel better or can I hold you?”
If the trauma has been physical, a hug may not be OK for that child. Always ask permission and provide choices to cope. Let your child know, “It’s OK to be angry, but we can’t hit. Do you think you could talk to me or maybe go to your calming area when you get angry?”
Something I always recommend is holding the child, if possible, or have the child sit in a rocking chair and rock them in a rhythmic manner. Create down time that involves calming activities (coloring, Play-Doh®, other sensory activities) in a calming environment, with classical music, maybe dimmed lights, but absolutely no TV. Music and movement can be very soothing, music that has a good rhythmic beat that has motor movements to it, like the Hokey, Pokey.
Coping with trauma is never easy. It can impact the whole family. But what’s important is for families to recognize what trauma can look like in a child and then find those ways to help that child heal. I hope this blog helps, but please seek professional help as needed following a traumatic event.
Denise Coover, LCSW, is a Trauma Informed Care Specialist at Cook Children’s, who supports our homeless initiative. Denise, a therapist, specializes in caring for children who have been traumatized.