The safety and support you offer to survivors of childhood trauma has lasting positive effects. Here are 6 simple ways to make a big difference.
How much do you really know about trauma? Your ideas have probably been shaped by the stories you’ve seen in movies or on the news—war stories especially. War does create a lot of trauma—for combatants and civilians. But trauma is much more widespread, affecting people from all walks of life, including children. For the developing brains, the effects of childhood trauma can be especially challenging.
When a child feels intensely threatened or disturbed by something he or she has experienced or witnessed—that’s trauma. Those traumatic experiences have a range of intensity—from moving to a new school to witnessing a violent assault to experiencing child abuse. Any of these traumatic experiences can trigger a fight/flight/freeze reaction in the child. They may act more aggressively, hide or run away, or just shut down.
Experiences of Childhood Trauma
Some common causes of trauma in children include:
• Natural disasters
• Witnessing domestic violence
• Substance abuse by family member
• Sudden or violent loss of loved one
• Serious accidents or life-threatening illness (to self or family member)
• Experiencing or witnessing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
The degree of a child’s trauma is determined not only by the experience, but also by other factors. Different children react differently, and other life experiences of the child—positive and negative—can tilt the balance one way or the other. And how the child deals with the trauma matters, too. So does support and guidance from caring adults.
Supporting Children Who Have Experienced Trauma
If you know a child who has experienced trauma, you can do a lot to help tilt the balance of protective factors in their life toward the positive. Just being a trustworthy and supportive presence in their lives is a good start.
• Help them find healthy ways to express their emotions. The practical parts of our brains are good at distracting us from unpleasant thoughts and memories, which is how children (and adults) who have experienced trauma initially survive the event. But dealing healthily with trauma means eventually processing the painful experience. By expressing the feelings in controlled and constructive ways, the child can begin to understand and challenge their own negative thoughts and behaviors.
• But understand that you can’t push them. Our emotional brains can hold onto the traumatic experiences for a long time, and that’s why expressing them can help. But pushing someone who’s not ready can cause them to shut down and maybe never process the experience. Be patient. Be present. You can help a lot by being there for them and showing them you’re willing to simply listen.
• Instead, give them opportunities to access the emotions through play, art, or books. Pretend play, playing board games, drawing, doing coloring books, and reading can help children focus on something else while offering opportunities to access their feelings.
A picture book, such as A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes, is a great way to open the lines of communication. The main character Sherman, sees “a terrible thing.” He tries to do the normal things he’s always done, but the terrible thing keeps bothering him. He gets help from a counselor who plays games with him and draws pictures and finally helps him talk about difficult things and let his feelings out.
• Be a mentor, or help to find them one. Especially if the child’s home life has been part of their trauma, having safe and supportive mentors outside the home can be life-changing. These could be other relatives, teachers, after-school program leaders, a Big Brother or Big Sister.
• Get them further help. If the trauma is disrupting the child’s life, and they seem to need more support, help them reach out. Encourage them to speak to a teacher, social worker, or counselor.
• Learn more about trauma-informed care. Behavioral health experts understand more now about the powerful effects of trauma across a person’s life. And they’re using these insights to improve care, not only within health systems and social service organizations, but also in the criminal justice system. A recent 60 Minutes segment by Oprah Winfrey highlights the approach.
Find More Trauma Resources Through Families First
Children and other individuals in crisis can also find help through Families First. Our programs help families through some of the toughest challenges and changes in life, and our parenting education helps parents be better prepared and better informed about the positive impacts they can make in a child’s life. If you’d like to help us help families, contact us. And help support our work to build stronger families, more resilient individuals, and more optimistic futures.
Content provided by Families First employee, Chandas Smith, MA, LMHCA, NCC