Guest Blogger: Talya Steinberg, Psy.D
For children in particular, traumatic events can be very hard to understand. Memories related to frightening, unfamiliar experiences are often confusing not only because a child’s cognitive and language development is limited, but also because intense emotions and fear affect how experiences are processed and stored into memory. Therefore, reactions to trauma are often different for children than for adults, and children tend to show their distress through repetitive play, vague nightmares, or reenactment of the specific event (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Reminders of the event can be positive or negative, triggering the grieving response unexpectedly.
Evidenced-based treatments, which are based on supportive research, are often helpful for addressing trauma symptoms in children. Robin Goodman, PhD, who runs the bereavement program at and is executive director of A Caring Hand, The Billy Esposito Foundation, in New York City, uses a method called trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy, which was originally developed by Judith A. Cohen, MD, Esther Deblinger, PhD, and Anthony P. Mannarino, PhD. With this method children create a trauma narrative, or story, which helps the child process and make sense of the incident, alter cognitive distortions such as excessive guilt, and address life transitions and new meaning. The concept of gaining in new meaning, or benefiting in some way from personal experiences with trauma, is called post-traumatic growth.” Helping children to develop “post-traumatic growth,” in addition to coping with the aftermath of traumatic events and loss, can make a huge difference in their future lives. University of North Carolina at Charlotte psychologists Richard G. Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence G. Calhoun, PhD, who coined the term “post-traumatic growth” believe that trauma can help individuals discover new possibilities, better ways of relating to others, new personal strengths, positive spiritual changes and a stronger appreciation of life.
Adults can be instrumental for helping children develop “post-traumatic growth” by teaching resiliency skills, such as telling stories, using positive coping skills, seeking support, and helping others who may be hurting. First and foremost, it is important that parents take care of themselves and manage their own distress, as they are not only modeling for their children how to respond to trauma but also because their own distress can add to their child’s. Research shows that modeling a sense of psychological security, assuring love and protection, offering praise when their children make positive coping statements, and educating children may help reduce distress and foster “post-traumatic growth.” Of course, parents and caregivers must be able to use resiliency skills and seek their own support in order to be effective in this manner. More and more, we are learning the importance of communicating with their children about traumatic events. Furthermore, we are seeking to better understand the ways in which traumatic experiences can fuel positive growth and increase resilience.
Bio: Dr. Talya Steinberg received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology in 2011 and is completing her postdoctoral training in Portland, Maine. She endorses positive psychology principles and teaches resiliency skills with Dr. Breazeale.
American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
DeAngelis, T. (2011). Helping kids cope in an uncertain world, American Psychiatric Association Vol 42, 8. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/09/kids-cope.aspx