Coping with childhood trauma and anxiety can be challenging for everyone, however there are ways to support your child and help them feel safe, understand their experience and build their confidence and resiliency.
8 minute read
- Help your Child feel safe by letting them know that you are there for them
- Encourage discussions about their feelings so you understand their experience and build their resiliency
- Recovery from a traumatic event takes time, however most children are able to learn healthy strategies.
- Courage and confidence will increase over time, the more opportunities they have to prove to themselves they can cope
What Is A Traumatic Event
Traumatic events include any event that is unexpected, dangerous, frightening or shocking to your child or teen, and makes them feel anxious, fearful, scared, or distressed. Events may include the death of a loved one, their parents divorcing, illness, being bullied, being involved in traffic accidents, natural disaster or anything else they perceive as traumatic.
Witnessing a traumatic event, such as violence towards a loved one, can also cause trauma in young children as their sense of perceived safety is reliant on those who they feel attached to.
Everyone reacts differently to trauma, both during and after the event. Some children may react immediately, whereas others may react weeks or even months later.
Their reaction will be influenced by your child’s age, their personality and temperament, their understanding of the event, their past experiences, as well as the support of their family, friends and community.
Helping Your Child Feel Safe After Trauma
Ensure your child spends time with the people who help them feel safe. Your child may be feeling very anxious and insecure so show them affection in your usual way, such as a big hug.
Reassure them that they are safe right now, if that is the case. Let your child know that you are there for them when they need you.
Older children and teenagers may prefer more space and time to process what has happened, or may turn to their friends for support, instead of their parents or caregivers.
Encourage Open and Honest Communication
Encourage your child to talk about what has happened if and when they want to. Talking together also gives you the opportunity to understand how your child feels about the experience and gives them a safe space to ask questions.
Allow them to talk freely without interruption, and answer their questions as honestly as you can, in an age-appropriate way. If you don’t know the answer to their question, that is OK too, respond truthfully.
There can be the perception that talking about a traumatic experience will make things worse, but research has shown that this is not the case. Talking about it gives everyone an opportunity to make sense of what happened.
Talking about difficult subjects can be reassuring for some children as it helps them to understand what has occurred and encourages an environment of open communication. It can also teach them important life skills. If they seem distressed, then you can change the subject until they are in a better place to cope.
Building Resiliency In Children And Teens
Children are capable of extraordinary things and they will often follow their parents lead, so try and stay calm when you are around them, and encourage extended family and friends to stay calm too.
We can’t always protect our children but we can build their resilience so they can cope with life stresses and challenges going forward.
Children develop vital coping skills when they have a loving relationship with a caring adult, and they are surrounded by people who care about them. This could be their teacher, their football coach, their friends, kind neighbours, as well as their families.
Encourage them to reach out when they need support, remind them that they don’t need to deal with this on their own. Let them know that being brave can also mean having the courage to ask for help and support when we need it.
At the same time, give them opportunities to take control of a situation and make their own decisions that are age appropriate, when they feel able. Thinking and acting independently is a life skill and it helps children to learn and grow their confidence through their own experience. It helps them create self-esteem.
Praise them for their effort, not just their results. Acknowledge and offer praise when they have tried hard or been courageous, even if the results weren’t quite as they were expecting. If they are disappointed in the result, remind them of what they learnt from that experience.
If Behaviour Changes After Trauma
You may notice that your child shows signs of negative behaviour after a trauma. Their emotions may be more erratic and they may show signs of aggression and physical outburst.
Younger children may become very clingy and wet the bed again, while teenagers may distance themselves from you. They may fight going to bed if they are struggling to sleep or are scared of nightmares.
If children or teenagers behave aggressively or disobey rules that they previously conformed to, they are most likely struggling with their feelings.
Negative behaviour is the result of negative feelings, so try your best to remain calm and try to identify what it is that they need from you.
Remind yourself that they are not doing it to be naughty or manipulative and it won't last forever, they want to feel loved and safe again. They are grieving the loss of their safety, of what was familiar to them.
Anxious Behaviour and Routines
If your child is feeling fearful or overwhelmed, you may notice them have some physical symptoms such as tummy aches or headaches. They may tell you their heart is thumping, they feel sick, or they lose bladder control. These are all symptoms of anxiety, which could occur as a result of the trauma. They may avoid social situations and withdraw from their friends.
They may lose their appetite or want to comfort eat. Encourage healthy eating and exercise, especially if they can spend time outside in nature.
Try and retain a consistent routine so they know what is happening next, they feel safe and secure and can start to feel more in control. This includes regular waking times, meal times, bed times etc.
Encourage them back to school as soon as they can, and inform your child’s teachers what has happened, so they too can offer support. You may also need their teachers help dealing with separation anxiety, if they are worried about you or themselves, and are struggling with being separated from you.
Be aware they may find it hard to concentrate at school initially, and they may hear or see triggers at school that upset them. However, your child will learn that the more they do something or are exposed to something, the less anxious they will feel.
Repetition leads to familiarity which over time will decrease their anxiety.
Young children are still developing the skills required to express their feelings and may not know the words to use. If this is the case, encourage them to draw their feelings or act them out.
If you notice a particular behaviour, you can help your child name their feelings by suggesting “You look like you may be feeling confused right now. That’s OK, would you like to talk about it? You can also use examples in your own life to talk about feeling words.
If your child is withdrawn and struggling to talk about their feelings, ask them to talk about how their favourite Teddy is feeling. Ask them what their Teddy needs from them, as if they suggest Teddy needs a hug, you can be sure they need a hug too.
You may notice that your young child can no longer do all the things they could do before the event, and may have forgotten how to use the toilet, feed themselves or sleep on their own. This is not unusual and is a natural response for some children. This will pass once they feel more secure.
School Age and Pre Teens
This age group tend to think a lot about their own safety and that of their loved ones. They may also feel anxiety and guilt about the event and blame themselves for not preventing it. Talk through the event and reassure them it is not their fault. Being able to share their feelings and have them confirmed by you will help relieve some of their emotional burden.
If your child is showing challenging behaviour or signs of aggression, help them understand this is because of their hurt feelings and encourage more healthy ways to express them. Exercising is a great way so can you go for a walk or a swim together?
Kindly remind them that you love them very much, but you can’t accept the negative behaviour. As their parent or caregiver, it is important to set your boundaries now.
They will also need lots of love and affection to help them feel secure again.
If they continue to struggle with their feelings, they may benefit from creating a worry box.
Teenagers may also feel depressed or anxious and find themselves getting involved in risky behaviour such as drinking alcohol to numb their feelings, or self-harming.
If you think they are trying to hide from their feelings, try to understand why and encourage them to express them so you can validate them. Reassure them that what they are feeling is ok. You may want to talk about your own feelings more openly, to set an example.
They may feel different from their peers as a result of the traumatic event, feeling like they don’t fit in and isolated because no one else understands what they have been through. Or they may prefer to talk to their friend instead of you, and while this may hurt your feelings, encourage them to open up to whoever they feel able to, and is trusted.
If your child is struggling with school, talk with their teachers and see if the school has a counsellor that could help them. The school may be able to help them out in other ways such as allocating them some quiet space to hang out during the school day if they are feeling overwhelmed, or allowing them more time to sit exams.
If your teenager is blaming themselves, or somehow feels responsible, try and understand why they feel this way and talk through the facts. It is not unusual for us to distort our thinking when we are feeling anxious, so they may see things in extremes instead of facts. These are known as cognitive distortions, as our thinking can become distorted when we are anxious.
Recovery from a traumatic event takes time, however most children are able to learn healthy strategies. Courage and confidence will increase over time. The more opportunities they have to prove to themselves they can cope, the more they will believe in themselves again.
Continue to reassure your child that they are not responsible. Be calm and patient while your child transitions through the recovery and know that negative behaviour is an outlet for their feelings.
It is important to also look after your own mental wellbeing after such an event, as this will also enable you to support your child.
If anxiety is something you or your loved ones struggle with regularly, then please get in touch to discuss how I can help you overcome the underlying cause of your anxiety. You can book a FREE 45 minute discovery call here