By Jesse Viner, M.D.
February 24, 2014
When children, teens, and young adults experience trauma, life feels different for them. Seeing someone get injured, or being the target of violence, can be life-altering, even for adults.
It’s no wonder then that a threatening event or overwhelming experience may greatly affect how a child perceives the world around them. It may also impact their development and personality.
There are several ways parents can learn to help children heal after trauma. Here are four tips parents can try that should help.
1.) Learn to identify the kinds of trauma children and young adults face. Events such as sexual abuse, experiencing a natural disaster or involvement in a serious car accident, commonly come to mind when thinking about trauma. But not all instances of trauma are as well-defined.
Take exposure to violence, for example. Children and young adults may feel deep effects from witnessing violence on television or at school. Even though the child did not experience the violence firsthand, the event may have negatively affected the child, making him or her feel unsafe or fearing something bad will happen to him or her.
Trauma varies throughout childhood, adolescence, and into emerging adulthood. For young children, a disruption to their normal routine, such as parents separating or divorcing, may feel traumatic. Adapting to a new living situation or going to a new school may feel overwhelmingly stressful for the young child. In the lives of emerging adults, trauma may occur in the form of intimate relationship problems, peer conflicts, difficulties with academics or job loss.
Often, trauma leaves a young adult feeling confused about his or her personal identity or life goals. As parents, keep in mind that a wide range of events may be considered traumatic. It may seem like your child is overreacting to something small, but if the child or young adult identifies that an event was traumatic to them, it is helpful to validate their feelings.
2.) Parents can spot a traumatic reaction. What happens in terms of reaction, as an initial or lasting response to overwhelming, traumatic events? To begin with, the brain perceives a high threat level and pushes the mind and body to perform on red alert. The central nervous system goes into defense mode, affecting many physical, emotional, and mental functions. It can be hard to sleep; eat; breathe; focus; study; work; socialize; verbalize; engage in activities or calm down. Trauma can make a child feel jumpy; on edge; mean; scared; worried; sad; and needy for attention.
If you notice your child acting differently; having trouble sleeping; seeming more easily upset; displaying unusually angry or aggressive behavior; breaking rules or failing to finish schoolwork, they may be having a hard time processing something traumatic. Instead of focusing on punishment, switch gears and give your child positive attention. Spend time together, letting your child choose the activity. The supportive response may help your child regain a feeling of security and safety after experiencing trauma.
3.) Parents can be there to listen. There is not a one-size-fits-all trauma recovery plan that is guaranteed to work for everybody. For some, talking it out will provide much-needed relief, while for others, it won’t. Trauma can create feelings that simply cannot be described in words, especially for a child or young adult who does not have the vocabulary or practice in sharing difficult emotions.
You can help your child heal from trauma by offering to listen. Let your child know you are there, in case he or she wants to talk. Express that you want to know what is going on, but that you will wait, ready to listen, whenever he or she feels like opening up.
4.) Parents can model healthy ways to cope. Positively affect how your child comes to terms with negative feelings by being a role model. Practice healthy coping skills on a regular basis, and your child may pick up on your beneficial behavior.
Model ways that you deal with everyday stress. When you notice your child struggling after experiencing trauma, encourage him or her to turn to soothing and enjoyable activities to release stress.
About Dr. Jesse Viner
Jesse Viner, M.D., Executive Medical Director of Yellowbrick, is a recognized expert in the treatment of eating disorders, difficulties resulting from trauma and abuse, and bipolar disorder. He has three decades of experience applying the knowledge of psychiatry and psychoanalysis to the challenge of creating meaningful and pragmatically effective treatment programs.
Dr. Viner has served as Director of Adult Psychiatry Inpatient Services for Northwestern University Medical School; Medical Director of Four Winds Chicago and Director of University Behavioral Health. He is on the faculty of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Dr. Viner is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.