Due to their environment, some children are more at risk than others for suffering long-term effects from an upsetting event, like physical, sexual or verbal abuse, witnessing a disaster or form of interpersonal violence, or being victims of neglect or abandonment.
How a child experiences an event and how it’s handled by those around him have an effect on how traumatizing it can be, notes Child Mind Institute psychologist Dr. Jerry Bubrick. When a child has had one or more traumatic events and has reactions that continue and affect his or her daily life long after the events have ended, this is post-traumatic stress.
How to Tell If Your Child Has Trauma
Children who are dealing with trauma typically are plagued by unhappiness, long periods of depression or anxiety, and behavioral, eating and sleeping changes. Some may complain of aches and pains, have difficulty at school, have problems relating to others, or begin to isolate themselves and show no interest in activities they once enjoyed. Older children may turn to drugs or alcohol, act out in risky ways, or engage in unhealthy sexual behaviors.
If you notice any of these behaviors in your child, be sure to talk to your child and schedule an appointment with a physician or therapist who can help you dive deeper into the issues troubling your child.
What Could be the Cause?
You don’t have to be a neglectful or abusive parent for trauma to have happened to your child. Some of the best parents are caught off guard when a seemingly good family friend or relative sexually abuses their child, or a natural disaster or death in the family by accident or violence leaves a child at a loss.
According to the National Child Stress Network, here are some causes of PTSD that can often go unconsidered:
- Serious injury
- Community violence
- Combat injury of a loved one
- Death of a loved one
- Violence within the family
- School violence
- Natural disaster
- Act of terrorism
How to Comfort Your Child
While children and teens are more vulnerable to the effects of trauma than adults, your support and reassurance will help put them on solid ground and on the road to recovery much faster than if they had to go it alone inside their own heads. As a parent, you can restore emotional balance, remove unnecessary fears, bring back trust in the world or other people, and guide them lovingly and gently on from the traumatic event.
Keep in mind that a traumatic event will undermine their sense of security, leaving them feeling helpless and vulnerable, especially if the event stemmed from an act of violence or a violation of their bodies.
As parents, remember that you can’t force recovery from traumatic stress as much as you wish you could. It’s your support and understanding that helps most with the healing process. Activities as simple as spending time together and talking face to face without distractions go a long way. Do your best to create an environment where your kids feel safe to communicate what they’re feeling and to ask questions.
Acknowledge and validate your child’s concerns, comfort your child, acknowledge their fears, and reassure your child. Let them know that the event was not their fault, that you love them, and it’s OK for them to feel upset, angry or scared.
Don’t pressure your child into talking. It can be very difficult for some kids to talk about a traumatic experience. Instead, offer solutions like doing meditation together that will help to quiet their anxieties and give them back a sense of control.
In your conversations, be honest and vulnerable with your child, too. Share your thoughts and feelings in an age appropriate way and help them see how you can find hope and positivity in tough times. Encourage your child to seek out friends and pursue games, sports, and hobbies that they enjoyed before the traumatic event. Go on family outings to the park or beach, enjoy a games night, or watch a funny or uplifting movie together.
Don’t Give Up
It is difficult to help children going through trauma. Certain triggers may elicit certain reactions. A child may jerk away from affection, have nightmares, tense up when reminded of the trauma, or begin to cry. In the first few weeks after traumatic events, it is common for children to feel and act like this. Your family doctor would be able to help you to start with, and if necessary refer you to a therapist such as a child psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychiatric nurse for further care.
Be Mindful of Your Own Need
Be sure to take care of yourself too, and talk to professionals for your own well-being. Seek therapy sooner, rather than later, will help not just you, but help you to better assist your child.