As a parent, you want to protect your child from everything. But the sad and unfortunate truth? They will likely be exposed to far more than you could ever want them to be. Trauma can touch your child through an array of situations – death, natural disasters, a car accident, illness or anything else that is a threat to their emotional and physical safety and well-being.
When adults experience trauma, they have challenges and difficulty navigating through it; thus, when children experience trauma, they will feel even more lost, scared, confused and helpless. While there’s no way to erase the trauma from your child’s life, there are plenty of ways you can be there to care for them.
Be physically present
As your child’s caregiver, you are the person they trust most in this world. To feel emotionally safe, they must first feel physically safe. For your child to feel physically safe, they need to know that you are available to them. Depending on the level of trauma experienced, you may need to take time from your usual schedule, so you can be there to comfort and console them. It’s crucial that your children aren’t left feeling alone during a traumatizing time.
Encourage your child to talk about it
Don’t force your child to talk about the traumatic experience they encountered, gently encourage them instead. Let them know that it’s healthy to discuss the event and their feelings surrounding the event. Remind them that their feelings are valid and important. It’s okay to be upset, angry, sad, scared, stressed, or frustrated. Unfortunately, we live in a society that encourages us to suppress “negative” feelings, so it’s important that your children know that all emotions can be expressed and processed in a safe and secure environment with someone they trust.
Trauma leaves children feeling confused, so they’ll most likely come to you with the hard questions. It’s important that you don’t blatantly lie to them or alter the facts greatly – kids are smarter than we give them credit for, so they’ll pick up on the truth regardless of if you give it to them. They need to trust you.
There is, however, a fine line between honesty and over-sharing. Your kids don’t need to hear any graphic descriptions or event details that will only confuse them further. Trust your gut with what you choose to tell your children. In-depth discussions may be mitigated by or depend on their age, their maturity level, the specific situation, if there will be any media exposure, etc.
Live a normal lifestyle
Putting your child’s life on hold for too long after a traumatic experience will only hinder them in the long run. Kids thrive off schedule and routine, which has already been interrupted by trauma. As soon as possible, it’s important to reintegrate your child into their normal lifestyle. Send them back to school and sports practice, engage in family activities you did prior to the trauma.
Like every other part of parenting, there is no fixed way to deal with the aftermath of trauma. If you’re unsure of what to do, seeking professional help is always a good option. It’s normal for your child not to act like their regular self immediately after a traumatic event, but don’t ignore any major warning signs. If your child isn’t functioning well at school, is having nightmares, exhibits symptoms of PTSD, is withdrawing from family and friends, or manifests stress physically, it’s time to seek professional help.
Dr. Sarah Wilson is a marriage and family therapist associate at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin). Teen counseling is a specialty area of her practice. Contact her at 512-270-4883 or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.