We think of children as being resilient, and in many ways, they are, but children can also be susceptible to trauma. Understanding the reason behind child trauma is essential in helping to resolve it.
Trauma doesn’t always have to be as severe as we think to affect a child and need our attention as parents.
For example, we often associate trauma with abuse, but for children things such as being involved in a minor car accident can be traumatic.
With the example of car accidents, there are around 176,000 children under the age of 15 involved in injury-producing crashes each year.
Around 15 to 25% of children in car accidents develop symptoms of depression often lasting even months after the accident.
Anytime a child is exposed to an event that causes them to feel threatened or very afraid, it can be traumatic.
It’s important as parents to know how to address trauma with our children in an age-appropriate way and help them work through it. Trauma isn’t necessarily an unnatural or even unhealthy response to certain situations, as long as it’s handled well.
Understanding Child Trauma – How Children React to Trauma
Children tend to react to trauma differently than adults, and it may be harder to recognize what’s going on unless you know what to look for.
Withdrawal is one of the ways kids can react to trauma. For example, losing interest in activities or regressing and acting more like a younger child can occur.
Preoccupation with the traumatic event—for example, repetitive drawing or playing representing the event can be a sign of trauma in a child.
Physical symptoms like stomach pains and headaches can occur, as can clinginess sleep problems and irritability.
Talking About Traumatic Events with Your Child
Even if your child isn’t showing symptoms of trauma exposure, you might want to talk with them if they are exposed to an event that could be traumatic. Tips for talking to kids about traumatic events include:
- Provide reassurance to your child that they are safe—sometimes you have to reinforce this over and over
- Listen to your child and take their concerns seriously
- Ask your child to talk to you about what they feel
- Talk with your child about different ways people deal with trauma and stress and let them know their feelings are normal
- You can talk about your own feelings about the event as well, as long as you’re careful to do so in an age-appropriate way
In general, you may need to give your child extra attention during this time.
Create and Stick with Routines
When your child experiences trauma, if you already have family routines in place, try to keep them going as much as possible. Children need that structure and sense of predictability, particularly in the wake of a scary situation.
If you can’t get back to your routine right away, let your child know you will as soon as possible and try to avoid introducing any big changes following a traumatic event.
Other Ways to Help Your Child
Sometimes the most important thing to keep in mind when helping a child after trauma is that it will take time, but there are still things along the way you can do to help.
For example, make sure your child has plenty of time to play and having fun with friends or family. They should have the option to play outside, play games, and just be a kid as much as possible.
Try to help your child get as much sleep as possible, even if that means following a different schedule than usual, and find ways to help your child relax each day.
Every child is different but you can try warm baths, storytime, family movies or just spending time together.
After a traumatic event, some kids can feel helpless and powerless.
As a parent, you can help this by allowing them to make as many day-to-day decisions as possible.
Helping your child with their trauma may be more than you can do on your own, and if that’s the case, therapy can be a good option for children so they can work on addressing their symptoms.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy may be an approach a therapist uses for a child, but there are other options as well.
Finally, even if your child seems to be regressing or experiencing increasing challenges, don’t criticize them. For example, if your child wants to start sleeping with the lights on, don’t tell them that’s wrong but let the do it for a period of time.
Child trauma can be minor or it can be severe. Understanding the cause of the trauma and having patience with them will be your greatest tools to overcome the stress of trauma.