Here’s Where to Begin in Helping a Child Overcome Trauma

As parents, we worry. We just want our kids to be happy and healthy. We’d do anything to protect them.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way; we can’t always keep bad things from happening. For a parent, having a child experience trauma is devastating. Trauma is any event that is so frightening, upsetting, and scary that it overwhelms the senses. It may be abuse, an accident, an illness, the death of a significant loved one, or a natural disaster. It may be a life-threatening experience or an experience where the child believed their life was in danger. Trauma includes any significant event that causes a child to lose their sense of safety.

And that’s heartbreaking.

However, while we can’t control or change the event, we can move forward with our children and do all we can to help them heal.

If you are looking for ways to better support your child experiencing trauma, reach out to the team of licensed child mental health professionals at Simi Psychological Group. Our team of trauma therapists specializes in treating children and teens, providing them with the unique care and support they need in this early time of their lives. Simi Psychological Group is the leading therapy clinic for trauma support in Thousand Oaks. To learn more about their services, call (805) 842-1994.

Here are some tips and strategies our team has put together on where to begin in helping your child overcome trauma.

First and foremost, a parent with patience and lots of extra love. It goes without saying that after a traumatic event, a child’s whole world has changed. They are likely feeling a whole lot of emotions that they may or may not know how to talk about or articulate. These may include a loss of security, ongoing fear, anxiety, anger, a loss in self-esteem, sadness, depression, and even guilt. As a parent, it can be frustrating when we want to help our child but feel powerless to do so. Sometimes our own sense of helplessness leads us to lose patience with a child who is exhibiting new behaviors, not responding to our efforts to talk, or is more moody and emotional. Sometimes in our desire to have everything be ok, we place unrealistic expectations on a child who’s been through trauma. We may not want to see their pain because, of course, it breaks our hearts. So, while the suggestion to parent with patience and lots of extra love may seem obvious, sometimes we do need that reminder because, after all, we’re human.

Understand that kids will react to trauma in different ways. Some will talk about it, others will want to bottle it up either because they are afraid to talk about it or because they just don’t know how. It’s important to allow your child to grieve in their own way and give them space and time if they aren’t ready to talk. And it’s vitally important to make sure your child has access to professional support. As parents, we can only do so much. A trained mental health professional– therapist, psychologist, social worker– has the knowledge, expertise, and, frankly, objectivity (though their hearts break for these kiddos as well) to support your child in the most appropriate way. A trained professional will work with your child using play therapy, some talk therapy, and psycho-education to help your child overcome the trauma. Specifically, one of the best treatment approaches is called TF-CBT, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.

In addition to getting your child professional help, you can help them by listening well, staying calm, acknowledging their experience, and validating their emotions. Spend extra time with your child to help them regain their sense of security. This may involve a longer bedtime routine, with extra stories and extra snuggles, perhaps extra lights on, and extra reassurance. It may be more one-on-one play time or special interactions with your child. In the aftermath of trauma, connection with a kind, loving, trusted caregiver, you, is crucial to their healing. Never underestimate the power of your presence to soothe, comfort, and reassure.

Be aware of the ways in which your child may be affected. There may be a disturbance in their sleep, they may be extra moody, they may lose their appetite, and they may appear distracted or withdrawn. They may be extra clingy; they might regress to old behaviors they had previously outgrown (such as bedwetting). They may have nightmares or night terrors. They may start exhibiting “naughty” behaviors or get into trouble. Again, be patient and respond with warmth, compassion, and kindness. Be sure to talk to your child’s therapist about any new behaviors you observe in your child.

Maintaining routines is another way to help a child overcome trauma. They need to re-establish a sense of normalcy and safety. Routines provide structure. Anxiety increases with the unknown, unexpected, or unpredictable. Mealtime, bath time, and bedtime routines, for example, are reassuring. They may help your child begin to feel a sense of control again through the consistency and predictability of that routine. Get your child involved in some aspects of age-appropriate decision-making with respect to daily activities. Doing so can help with their sense of efficacy, self-esteem, and sense of self-worth. At the same time, it’s important to honor their feelings if something feels triggering or overwhelming; don’t force anything.

Help your child regulate their emotions through healthy coping skills, including breathing exercises to reduce anxiety and fear. Teach them how to breathe in slowly to the count of three and slowly exhale to the count of three. Show them how to place their hand on their belly and take deep “belly breaths.” You can have them place a stuffed animal on their belly and watch it rise and fall with each breath. Remind them that fear and anxiety are normal responses to scary situations and events, and everyone experiences fear. Talk with your child about other things they can do when they feel scared, anxious, sad, or angry, for example. That might be coloring, playing a game, talking to a grown-up, or going for a walk with a safe adult. Validate their sadness, anger, or grief, all very normal emotional responses to trauma as well. In teaching them these emotional regulation skills, be sure to explain that the expectation is not that their fear, anxiety, sadness, etc., will be completely eliminated (because that’s not realistic–none of us can control a fear response or stop a wave of sadness), but rather, that they have tools they can use when those feelings come up.

Encourage your child to engage in fun activities, which can serve as a distraction from the emotional overwhelm. Again, show patience if they’re reluctant. Let them know it’s also ok to be happy. Sometimes in situations where there’s been an illness or loss of a loved one, a child may feel guilty for not “feeling sad all the time.”

The task of helping a child overcome trauma is not one any parent asks for or wants. If we could keep our children in a bubble and keep them safe forever, we certainly would. If we could have any superpower in the universe, we’d choose the power to protect. If we could alleviate their suffering by taking on their pain, we’d also do that. We’d trade places with them in a heartbeat if it kept them safe. But as none of that is possible, we simply must do the best we can and support them by providing licensed specialized therapy for their unique needs. To learn more about trauma therapy services in Thousand Oaks, reach out to the team at Simi Psychological Group today by calling (805) 842-1994.