Trauma Touches Every Child

Knowing exactly what to do and say is critical when helping your child.

Posted Nov 18, 2018

Daily, it seems terrifying events occur in the world. It's nearly impossible to protect kids from knowledge about these events because of the speed at which news travels today. Hearing graphic details may traumatize a child, and actual involvement in the traumatic event can sabotage a child's ability to cope with anxiety. After the trauma, even benign experiences may trigger massive amounts of anxiety or emotional paralysis in the child, preventing him or her from feeling comfortable in a world in which they used to thrive. Knowing exactly what to do and say helps a parent assist their child to metabolize the unsettling and even terrifying material, so the child can again maneuver comfortably in the world. 

Remembering several guidelines helps a parent structure the talk. First, the age of the child is important. Younger children are neither psychologically nor emotionally equipped to cope with sophisticated material that is graphic in nature. Allowing the child space to ask questions prevents the parent from inadvertently disclosing details of the event that may be detrimental.  Typically, well-adjusted kids only ask the questions to which they are prepared to hear the answer. Thus, it is imperative to answer the child’s questions concisely and simply to avoid introducing new material that might trigger the child. Occasionally, a detailed explanation may help an older child, so following the child’s lead is essential. 

Second, consider the child's depth of feeling. If the child is sensitive, empathic, and caring, they are, initially, going to be more impacted by disturbing events. The best thing is for the child to be able to talk about it. It is especially important to empathize with the child's feelings. For example saying, “You are worried this could happen to you. I understand honey, it’s scary.” After fully empathizing with the child's feelings, reassure him or her. “It's scary, I understand, but there a lot of people working hard to keep you safe.” 

Regardless of the child's age and sensitivity, parents should broach the subject by gently asking, “Have you heard or seen something that you can't get out of your head, honey?” Then, allowing the child to ask the questions and lead the discussion is optimal. Empathize with their feelings with statements like, “You have every right to be angry. I am too. This should never have happened.” Or “You are sad and that is understandable. It's heartbreaking. I get it.” After empathizing, reassuring the child is important. 

It is common for a child who has witnessed or experienced a traumatic situation to employ defense mechanisms. It is evident when a defense mechanism is at play when a child blames himself or herself. This may be difficult for adults to understand because the child is inflicting guilt upon himself or herself. However, for a child, it's easier to self-blame because it provides a feeling of control. Otherwise, the child has to accept that the traumatic event could happen again without warning, as it did the first time. For a child, feeling helpless and terrified is horrible. So, by taking responsibility for the event in their head, they feel a sense of control. Yet, this defense mechanism is destructive to a child’s sense-of-self and mental health. Helping a child in this situation is crucial. 

For example, a child who lost her father to a tragic accident may convince herself that if she had been nicer to him the morning of the accident, he would have taken more care and would still be alive. In this case, it's necessary to empathize with the child's feelings. Then, assert that what happened was not the child's fault. Indicate that it was a terrible accident and the last person who has responsibility is that child. 

In a situation when a child has experienced the death of another child or sibling,  they may employ a spin-off of this defense mechanism, which is frequently referred to as “survivor guilt.” Often, a child will idealize the figures that have passed away and feel flawed and “bad” compared to the deceased. This often causes thoughts that they should have died instead of the children who lost their lives. The child often feels deep shame about who they are and consistently requests that they be punished for minor offenses. In many situations, it stirs up suicidal ideation. Professional help may be necessary, but following the same guidelines at home helps. Fully empathize with the child ’s guilt, assert the accident was not their fault, and reassure them that they are a good person.

For example, “You feel guilty that you are here and your brother isn't. I get it. Guilt feels terrible and awful. But, this was a tragedy. It was not your fault. There was nothing you could have done. You are such a good person. Maybe there is a way to prevent other children from going through this. Any ideas? A lot of people are working hard to keep kids safe, maybe there is something we can do to help.”

Often, helping kids think of something concrete they can do to help the cause gives them a feeling of control. 

Although a parent is a child’s most powerful confidant, it is not unusual for kids to feel more comfortable talking about difficult things with a therapist. Kids often worry about burdening their parents with their troubles, especially if the parent has incurred a loss from the tragedy. Providing a safe and neutral person and space to talk about it is a great way to support the child. If a parent observes the child withdrawing, experiencing extreme issues with sleep, appetite, aggression, or anxiety, it may be necessary to get them professional help quickly. Empathizing with the child's feelings and reassuring them at home is equally important. As a parent myself, the mantra I repeat in my head is, “It's not what happens to my kids. It's how I help them deal with it.” Empathy heals and logic guides. 

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