Helping Children Recover from Trauma-Related Anxiety
An explanation of what trauma does to children and how to help them recover.
Posted Jun 26, 2018
There is nothing more heart-wrenching than witnessing a child undergo trauma. Whether it’s from abuse, abandonment, neglect, the loss of family, bullying, hunger, and/or disease, the searing hardship impacts the developing brain and has lasting effects throughout a person’s life. Many bystanders often feel confused and helpless about what they can do to help the suffering child, so here are a few explanations to better understand the impact of trauma on children along with a few general suggestions for easing trauma-related anxiety.
Let’s start by shattering an oft-repeated myth about trauma and the young child. I have heard numerous people innocently dismiss a traumatic event in younger child’s life when they suggest, “Oh, it’s good that they are so young because they won’t remember it.”
Sadly, the opposite is generally true.
A young child’s developing brain is deeply imprinted by a trauma, leaving its mark via a host of governing neural pathways, and straining hormone and neurotransmitter production among other physiological effects. In addition, the younger child faces the added burden of experiencing a trauma without the verbal reasoning to comprehend or name what’s happening (the ability to label a problem is a chief component to healing and recovery—it’s difficult to get an aspirin for a headache if you can’t describe the throbbing in your temple).
Sometimes a trauma is so overwhelming that it impacts the child’s memory (same for adults) as a tsunami of stress-response hormones floods the hippocampus part of the brain, resulting in a deeper ingrained memory or practically obliterating the memory altogether. When the memory is “forgotten,” the person still retains a kind of free-floating anxiety that can be intrusive at times without the association and understanding of an identifiable triggering event.
In children, anxiety can take numerous forms and look like the following:
- Delayed developmental milestones or regression (e.g. potty training, speech development, etc.)
- Temper tantrums and seemingly exaggerated responses
- Sensitivity to touch with a potential simultaneous need for extended hugging and touch
- Hypersensitivity to all neurosensory stimuli (noise, smell, temperature, food and liquid tastes, feel of clothing and materials, extra sensitivity to light and dark, heightened reaction to toys, feeling lost in strange or large rooms with desire for smaller spaces, and/or extensive fear of small places, etc.)
- Inability to understand and communicate basic needs (hunger, thirst, cold, hot, etc.)
- Hypersensitive to moods of others around them
- Physiological distress with more sensitive immune systems, creating extra vulnerabilities to colds, cases of flu, rashes, and diseases
- Detachment, excess emotionality, hyperactivity, plagued by worrying and fear, and/or more abundant fantasy play (play can also include a continual re-enactment of traumatic events)
The important thing to remember is that these behaviors are not bad or on-purpose. Nor do they suggest a person is doomed to a life sentence of being abnormal (not to mention “normal” is overrated). In fact, there is an upside as trauma can bring a variety of gifts to a person. For instance, the combination of heightened awareness and sensitivity can cultivate a greater understanding of one’s environment along with increased empathy and intuition. Perhaps that’s why some of the greatest thinkers, inventors, healers, and heroes have overcome great childhood adversity (from Beethoven, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin to George Orwell, Maya Angelou, and Oprah Winfrey).
The resilience gained from surviving trauma can also transfer into a greater ability to persevere other obstacles in life. Christopher Reeve and Stephen Hawking are powerful adult examples of resiliency at its peak in overcoming obstacles and attaining even greater feats in life.
There are also the countless examples of amazing parents, teachers, artists, healers, caregivers, inventors, service providers, scientists, and incredibly dedicated workers and individuals that give endlessly to families, communities, and the world around them.
So, what can you do to help children work through anxiety and increase resilience?
First, please call 911 if there’s an emergency. You can also request that your local police department do a “safety check” if you are concerned about an individual or family. If you suspect child abuse, you can also call 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453) or visit https://www.childhelp.org/hotline/.
If you are a parent, relative or caregiver that’s struggling and worrying about the impact of trauma in children’s lives, please seek help. There are a number of resources, including https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/tools-learning-resources/coping-traumatic-events-resources, https://www.nctsn.org/audiences/families-and-caregivers, and https://www.childwelfare.gov/.
Here is another list of government resources that include child care like Head Start along with financial, nutrition and medical support https://nwlc.org/resources/government-resources-assistance-for-low-income-parents/.
Here is a list of homelessness resources for young parents and children https://youth.gov/youth-topics/runaway-and-homeless-youth/resources-young-parents-children. If you are suffering from drug abuse and addiction, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline.
Here is information for children who struggle with parents who are addicts: https://americanaddictioncenters.org/guide-for-children/.
Following is a list of general suggestions for working with children overcoming trauma. Be sure to recognize and manage your own anxiety as feeling helpless can incite anxiety in the best of highly trained specialists, so you can incorporate some of these ideas for yourself too.
- Breathe. When our physiological system is aroused, it helps to get oxygen. Shallow breathing occurs in anxiety, so take four long deep breaths and try counting to the count of four with each one of them. Practice this technique with kids and even try making a game out of it. You can also add in the self-talk “Everything is okay and I am safe” with each inhalation and “All scary things are leaving me now” with each exhalation.
- I Spy. Kids can learn to ground themselves and return to the moment by feeling the floor beneath their feet or clapping hands or placing their hands on their lap and paying attention to what their hands are feeling. They can look around the room and say the colors aloud or to themselves (depending on the situation). Together, you can play the “I spy” game.
- Rabbit’s foot. Having a little furry rabbit’s foot was once popular. It doesn’t have to be a rabbit’s foot, yet having a simple tactile item that can be placed in a pocket can help. It makes a difference if the child can help pick the item and you can both discuss its intent (like, it’s the act of touching it that can reassure them and ground them in the moment). It can be a smooth rock or furry piece of fabric. It could also be helpful to get a group of them so that the child is comforted that, like a plentiful bowl of apples, there are many pocket items available in case one gets lost.
- Making choices. Kids feel more empowered the more they can make choices. While too many choices can make even the most decisive person confused, having no choice limits the ability for enhanced maturational development. So, try offering two options to things as much as you can (Examples include: “Would you like the green or yellow shirt?” “Would you like XYZ book or ABC book?” “Would you like an apple or a pear?”)
- Boundaries. Kids need boundaries and thrive when there are safe walls as opposed to slippery walls. This is especially true for kids who have experienced out of control chaos. Kids may naturally test to see what they can get away with, yet will feel more assured and safer when there are rules. CONSISTENT rules. Be specific with reading time, bedtimes, play time, and don’t go back on your word. If you say you are going to be there then show up—on time. Not only are you providing them with structure and boundaries (in whatever capacity you are in their lives), you are also serving as a role model of how to behave in the world.
- Reinforce the good. Focus on the good. Trauma survivors can easily be shamed. Rather than pointing out a flaw or poor behavior choice, focus on reinforcing what they are doing good. “I really like and appreciate how you helped clean up the toys. Thank you! Great job!” Offer incentives, “Let’s clean up the toys so we can go make yummy dinner together.” Redirect. “We don’t color the walls. Here are some coloring books and construction paper we can color instead. Hey, let’s clean up the wall and then I’ll color with you. Do you want the coloring book or construction paper?”
- Be inclusive and play. Let the kids help you with dinner, gardening, chores, shopping, donating food to others, etc. They love and need the involvement to thrive and grow.
- Aim for the stars. Kids love having little goals that they can accomplish each day (a simple one is making the bed). While the American dream says to strive toward something that makes you happy, what really helps kids (and adults) is accomplishing things that help provide self-respect and self-satisfaction. Try asking (age appropriately), “What will make you like and respect yourself the most?” instead of “What will make you happy?”
- Emotion coach. Ask how kids feel and listen. Empathize. Don’t interrupt and never tell a child not to feel a certain way. The more you listen as an emotion coach that doesn’t tell a child what to do or how to feel, the more they will develop emotional intelligence. Try letting them tell you how they want to respond to a situation instead of you telling them what to do. You might be surprised how hard it is not to give advice and you may be doubly surprised by how well they can come up with a solution themselves (perhaps even better than yours!). Then praise them for the empathy, kindness, creativity, etc. that you hear them share. If necessary, you can also offer a more non-anxiety producing solution: “I wonder what it would be like if you handled it XYZ way? How would you feel if you did it that way?”
- Balance. Encourage activities that support the mind, body, and spirit. Study together, visit libraries, read together and play developmentally appropriate instructional games together. Provide a good, balanced diet and make sure kids are hydrated. Encourage and try to foster good and plentiful friendships and places where they can gain a sense of belonging. Encourage journaling and playing with items that can help relieve anxiety, like working with clay, play-dough, legos, paint, and do things that encourage physical activity like riding a bike, sports, gymnastics, tennis, swimming, and/or having a punching bag (for releasing anger). Get into nature via hikes, walks, gardening, camping, and picnicking. Spirit. Pray, meditate, go to church, museums, concerts and/or try kids yoga and other mindful types of activities.
Recovering from trauma can last a lifetime, yet it is a journey filled with increasingly richer rewards—for the child and the one helping the child through the trauma. Even if it’s for a moment or a lifetime, there is no greater gift then serving as a rainbow of hope, love, and healing from a child’s storm.