As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.
How To Support a Traumatized Child by Maria Black
***TW: Death, ACES, Mentions of Bullying.***
The day my father died was the worst day of my life.
I can remember it vividly, even though I was only six. Everyone was gathered around the medical bed that had taken residence in my parent’s room. It was very dark. Only a few bits of dusky twilight streaming in through a crack in the heavy, musty curtain.
Everyone was crying. Except for me.
Looking back, my mom always said it was strange that I didn’t cry. When it happened, I think she figured I was too young to grasp the concept of death so I wasn’t sad.
But I did and I was. In fact, I have never felt a more heartbreaking feeling than I did standing in that room.
I just didn’t let it out.
Instead, I swallowed it.
Why did I internalize such a horrible pain? I could go into the science of it all, but we’d be here all night. (If you’re interested, check out more of my thoughts on grief in “Birds; A Meditation on Grief, Loss, and Love)
What I can tell you is what I thought at the time: “everyone is crying. I have to be strong for my family, I have to be grown up now and forget how I feel.” I think because I was a caring, sensitive child, I just assumed it was my duty to take care of everyone else. And to my six year old brain, the way to do that was to not be sad.
So I stuffed my feelings down from then on.
How A Simple Thought Distortion Can Lead To A Lifetime of Trauma
Of course, like a game of emotional whack-a-mole, the more I beat down my feelings, the more they popped up in inappropriate places. This led to a lot of emotional drama all the way through my late 20’s.
All because of a simple thought distortion that went unchecked.
I strongly believe if someone had been able to help me identify my flawed thought process during the time after my father’s death my adulthood wouldn’t have been so rocky.
Childhood Trauma and ACEs
What happened to me was called an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience), an event so damaging it affected me for the next 25 years. The affect of ACEs can lead to significant emotional and cognitive impairment, physical disease, and have even been linked to early death. One study found that people with six or more ACEs on average had their lifespan shortened by 20 years!! And yes, they stack. Having one ACE makes you way more prone to having multiple because of the impact of behavior and environment.
Back then, there really wasn’t much known to the general public about ACEs. My brother had a much more severely expressed mental illness at the time as well, taking up a lot of my newly widowed mother’s emotional resources. And I was tough and stubborn – I often refused to go to counseling.
So, it’s really no wonder my mental illness slipped through the cracks, like many ACE’s do. My mom did her very best to get me help, but my OCD was insidious. My illness initially masked itself as grief and later, growing pains. The ACE ate away at me from the inside out.
By the time we all realized something was really wrong, I was almost 30.
How to Support a Traumatized Child: Trauma Informed Parenting Is Often The Key
Unfortunately, ACEs are unavoidable. Trauma is a function of life.
It’s how you deal with it that matters. What does that mean for you as a parent with a child facing an ACE?
As a parent, you’re the first line of defense for your child’s mental state after a trauma. That means it’s critical for you to act quickly, watch carefully, and be informed. This is called Trauma Informed Parenting.
When trauma occurs, most children don’t know how to express their feelings about it. Instead they tend to show how they feel through their actions. And sometimes those actions are disruptive and inappropriate.
Trauma Informed Parenting helps parents identify these behaviors as a response to trauma (and not just general misbehavior). Looking at your child’s behavior from this lens will help you avoid re-traumatizing the child. It will also aid you in moving the child towards recovery.
Helping your child recover from trauma is no small endeavor. This process should always, always be supervised by a mental health professional. However, there are many things you can do at home to help your child heal. Check them out below!
Important Considerations on How To Support a Traumatized Child
***Disclosure: This section includes affiliate links***
1. Be Informed on What Trauma Looks Like
Not all ACEs come from the loss of a loved one or a natural disaster. Sometimes the cause is a little more insidious, especially in today’s world of technology.
As a trauma informed parent, it’s important for you identify any and all situations that may have affected your child. Here’s a brief list of traumas that could befall a child. For a more in-depth list, please visit this site: http://lookthroughtheireyes.org/what-is-childhood-trauma/
- Domestic Violence
- A Chaotic Childhood Environment
- Physical/Sexual Abuse
- War (Either in their own country or abroad)
- Going Through a Sudden and/or Severe Illness
Basically anything that threatens a child’s physical and emotional needs can be potentially traumatizing.
When determining if a trauma has occurred, you also have to consider certain factors about your child. For instance, I was very, very sensitive to begin with. I also had a genetic predisposition to anxiety and depression passed on by my Mom’s side of the family. This all lead to me being severely traumatized.
On the other hand, a child without these factors or different factors might have only been mildly affected.
2. Know How to Separate Bad Behavior from Trauma Induced Behavior
This consideration is really critical. Knowing the difference between regular growing pains and behavior related to trauma can keep a child from developing a lifelong ACE.
Some kids can keep on going after a traumatic event as if nothing happened at all. However their mind may be reeling inside. That’s why it’s so important to look very closely at their behavior after a potential ACE.
Here are some things to look out for:
- Jumpiness, unexplained agitation, and/or exaggerated fear response
- Increased clinginess
- Consistent nightmares
- Prolonged insomnia
- Persistent fear of sleeping alone or in the dark ( I still have a hard time sleeping alone with the lights off)
- Extreme people pleasing
- A newly developed shy streak (withdrawal)
- Extreme distrust of strangers
- Sudden negative change in quality of school work (Going from B’s to D’s)
Now a lot of these may resemble regular childhood outbursts. However there’s a couple big differences. Your child’s behavior is more likely to be abnormal and/or trauma induced if it’s prolonged, extreme, sudden and seemingly uncontrollable.
If you notice your child exhibiting any of these four signs for at least a month after a trauma, it’s time to get help.
3. Keep Your Cool When Supporting a Traumatized Child
Even if a child is acting out in ways that make you crazy, it’s important to remain gentle with them.
Here are a few tips on how to keep your cool and support your child as they wrestle their feelings:
- Take care of yourself – Staying calm while your child is falling apart is intensely stressful! You can’t pour from an empty cup so remember to give yourself lots of quality self care. Consider joining a peer support group like those offered by the Trauma Survivors Network to get perspective.
- Don’t take it personally – Again, it’s hard not to take things personally when you care so much for your child. They’re not upset because of you – even if they say so. They’re just dealing with huge emotions. So keeping a safe emotional distance during conflict is the best way to help them. In this instance it’s helpful to have your own individual therapy sessions set up to vent frustrations. Mindfulness and meditation can also be beneficial. If you’re a reader, one of my favorite books: The Four Agreements might help you.
- 3. Don’t match their anger – Kids who have been through a trauma are more likely to have inappropriate emotional outbursts. It can be difficult, but, whatever you do – don’t yell back. Matching their anger only leads to more pain and confusion for the child (and you). Instead stay calm and encourage them to name their pain. You can do this with a variety of charts, activities and games. These are a few of my favorites that you can buy on Amazon.
Unfortunately, the goal of Trauma Informed Parenting is not to fix your child’s pain.
It’s to support them as they process the trauma.
This can be really difficult because, of course, we want don’t want our children to suffer. But it’s important to let children deal with big emotions so they can learn to heal on their own. As hard as it is, they have to go through the pain to grow through it.
What you can do is be there for your child, emotionally and physically. Provide them with resources, love, and understanding. Listen to them carefully. Even when it seems impossible to do.
Take it from me: knowing my Mom would always be there, no matter what, was a tremendously powerful force in my recovery. I don’t know what I would have done without her.
It may not seem like enough in the moment, but your support makes a world of difference to child struggling after an ACE. So don’t give up <3
Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc, or its affiliates.