Childhood Trauma: How to Help
Natural disasters. Sexual assault. Physical assault. Witnessing an act of violence. The sudden death of a parent or close friend. Abandonment. Sickness or hospitalization. Childhood trauma is happening all around us.It is important that we look beneath the surface of the children we meet – whether it be our children, friends, family, or students that you teach and realize that your continued presence can make all the difference for a child who is struggling.
One out of every four children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and/or behavior (National Child Traumatic Stress Network). Childhood trauma is inevitable; however, consistency of relationships and recognition of inner turmoil can help a child when they are hurting to avoid years and years of overwhelming struggle.
“Most immediate and urgent concerns of young children have more to do with the consistency of close relationships than with events – no matter how ‘traumatizing’ adults may believe those events to be. ” – Fred Rogers
One’s childhood plays a pivotal role in shaping who you are and what you become. Will you become confident, or will you try to fade into the background? Will you chase your dreams, or do you feel like you will never amount to anything?
Relationships are instrumental in the early years, as it affects how our brains shape and grow, which affects us mentally, physically, and emotionally. Trauma, abuse, and neglect have long-term effects on children, and if untreated or overlooked, can greatly impact the person they become and the person they think they are.
Signs of Childhood Trauma
While some children might immediately show personality changes, not every child responds the same way. Some children withdraw socially, begin putting unrealistic expectations on themselves, or blame themselves for whatever hurt they are harboring.
Here are some symptoms to be on the lookout for:
- Nightmares or inability to sleep soundly
- Clinging to parents or trusted adults
- Sudden mood shifts/aggressive outbursts
- Replaying the event in conversations or play
- Avoiding talk or memories of the event
- Being emotional about anything and everything
- Muscle tension/stomach aches/headaches
- Loss of interest in things they love
- Trouble concentrating
- Being startled easily
- Unable to function as they did before
Childhood trauma can lead to:
- Difficulty trusting people
- Inability to enjoy new experiences
- Being fearful of chasing a dream, joining a sports team, or trusting new people
- Overreactions, creating stressful and more intense situations and social encounters
- Being fearful of one’s surroundings, making everyday things overwhelming
- Difficulty making friends or a decline in social interest
- Mental health problems, like depression and anxiety
- Difficulty building and maintaining new relationships
Early recognition and support are key to helping a child cope with childhood trauma. The first thing an adult can do is acknowledge their pain and support them. This can be difficult to navigate with a child who is still trying to verbalize their thoughts and feelings.
It can be difficult for them to maneuver all their emotions, as they are still trying to understand it all or feel overwhelmed and frustrated because they do not know how to verbalize what they are feeling and ask for help.
If you have or are trying to help a child navigate a traumatic situation, start by asking very simple questions such as “How are you feeling?” or “How can I help?” If you are helping a child who is dealing with the loss of a parent or close family or friend, know that it is healthy to talk about the loss.
Avoiding the topic might cause further grief on their behalf because they are keeping everything bottled in. Remembering and talking about people or things they have lost is a part of the grieving process.
How to Help a Child after a Traumatic Experience
If you have a child who has experienced something traumatic, or you are helping a child who has, here are a few things to consider:
Validate their feelings and address your own feelings over the event.
If you are the caregiver of a child who is dealing with trauma, know that neither of you should bottle up your feelings. Address your feelings and know it is okay for you to grieve. In addition to addressing whatever you are feeling, it is important not to overlook the little souls by which you are surrounded.While they may be small, their hearts are big, and they feel things in their own way. They might not be able to pinpoint it or verbalize it, but they feel it. Find ways to help them express what they are feeling.
It is important to let a child know that the traumatic event was not their fault. Assure them that you are present and there for them. When facing a trauma of any kind, people are searching for a constant – something they can cling to when everything feels so inconsistent, overwhelming, and scary.
Allow the child to cry. Let them talk about what they are feeling. Let them use art to express what they are feeling.
Know that every child is different.
In the same way that every adult has a unique way to express and deal with trauma and grief, every child navigates their feelings on a different scale. Some children withdraw and become incredibly quiet, while others have violent outbursts. Young children might be teary. Teens might want to hang out with their friends more.
The heart and mind find ways to try and deal with the uncertainty, so take time to invest in the child who is experiencing trauma and heartache. Do not compare one child to another or assume that a child is not experiencing trauma because they are quiet.
Start the conversation. Ask them how they are doing and what they are feeling. Tell them the trauma is not their fault. Know that the grieving process is different for everyone and should not be assumed to be “over” once you have one conversation. Keep checking in!
Answer their questions.
While it may be overwhelmingly difficult to hear a five-year-old shakingly mutter “Is my daddy coming back?” after dying in a car accident, we must answer their questions. Trauma questions might be difficult or overwhelming to answer, but asking questions is part of their grieving and growing process.
Instead of dodging their questions, answering their laundry list of questions is important to supporting them and acknowledging their grief. Answer their questions to the best of your ability. It might help both of you as you try to cope with whatever you are facing.
Give them an active voice in their grieving processTo help confirm a child, give them a voice, and help them grow, it is important to give children options. To help them develop their voice and navigate their feelings when they are dealing with a traumatic situation, you can ask simple questions, like: “This was your dad’s favorite book to read to you. Would you like to keep it?”
This allows them to address their grief and have something special to help cope with that loss. If they lose a close friend, you could offer to take them to the open casket. This allows them to decide if it would be helpful or too painful to physically see the person they lost.
One child might welcome the opportunity to speak about their friend or family member at a funeral while others might find that too difficult. Giving them choices as they navigate their grief allows them to express and address what they are feeling or bottling up.
Allow them to be children.
While it sounds simple, allowing children opportunities to remain children while dealing with trauma is particularly important. It is perfectly healthy and normal for a child to want to do arts and crafts after attending a funeral or build a Lego tower following a counseling session.
It is important that we not humiliate them or expect them to grieve like an adult. Let them be children. Their grief may come in waves. It may be here one hour and gone the next twenty-four hours. Go with their feelings rather than try to push feelings on them.
Christian Counseling for Childhood Trauma
When facing a trauma of any kind, children and their caregivers need to know they are supported. It is never too soon to schedule a counseling session to help a child cope with their trauma regardless of how big or small you think it is.
Childhood trauma can affect their future in so many ways, it is important to invest in their hearts today, so they have the emotional toolbelt to handle whatever life throws at them. It is not our place to judge or put a timeline on their feelings, but to help them process what they are feeling and confirm those feelings. While children may be small, they feel things in a big way. They must have the support they need to continue moving forward.
“Child with Arms Crossed”, Courtesy of Chinh Le Duc, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Attitude”, Courtesy of Sharon McCutcheon, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Girl in a dimly lit hallway”, Courtesy of Eric Ward, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Tears”, Courtesy of Kat J, Unsplash.com, CC0 License