HOW PARENTS CAN SUPPORT THEIR TRAUMATISED CHILDREN

Elretha Bartlett – Counselling Psychologist

Written by Elretha Bartlett on July 22, 2021.

It is a sad reality that many children in South Africa are exposed to traumatic experiences that could potentially have a lasting impact on them.

But with the right resources and support, parents and caregivers can help their children work through and heal from traumatic events.

WHAT IS TRAUMA?

A trauma is classified as any event that involves experiencing or witnessing actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence. How the child experienced or made meaning of the event will determine whether it was traumatic for the child. Some children might also be traumatised by learning that a traumatic event occurred to someone close to them, even if they didn’t directly experience or witness the event.

The reason that this might be traumatic for children is that their safety is often determined by the perceived safety of attachment figures.

Elretha Bartlett – Counselling Psychologist
WHAT IS TRAUMATIC STRESS?

Traumatic stress occurs when a child has been exposed to one or more traumatic events over the course of their lives and develops emotional, physiological and behavioural reactions that interfere with their daily functioning after the events have ended.

Traumatic reactions include:

  • Intense and ongoing emotional upset
  • Depressive features
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulties relating to other people
  • Regression
  • Loss of previously acquired skills
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Nightmares
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Bodily aches and pains

Children can display these symptoms when they are reminded of the traumatic event in some way.

The way traumatic stress manifests will vary from child to child and will depend on the child’s developmental level. Younger children tend to experience more fears of being separated from their parents or caregivers and might have more frequent nightmares. Older children might be more prone to experiencing shame and guilt and engaging in self-harm and other destructive behaviours.

WHAT IS POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental illness that both adults and children can suffer from. Not all people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event will develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some of the tell-tale signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in toddlers include:

  • Recurrent, distressing thoughts and memories of a past event
  • Recurrent nightmares where the content or emotions of the dream are related to the traumatic event
  • Flashbacks
  • Efforts to avoid people, places or conversations that remind the child of the traumatic event
  • Irritable behaviour or anger outbursts
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Sleep difficulties

Post-traumatic stress disorder is only diagnosed when these symptoms persist for more than a month after the traumatic incident occurred and are negatively affecting the child’s life.

FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE THE AFTER-EFFECTS OF A TRAUMA

Not all children who have experienced a traumatic event will develop traumatic stress. In fact, it is possible that children can experience a traumatic event and not experience any side effects.

A number of factors might affect the severity of symptoms or whether the child develops symptoms in the first place. These factors include the severity of the traumatic event, parents and caretakers’ reactions, previous history of exposure to trauma and protective factors in the family and community environment.

A child who experiences a sense of belonging might be less likely to develop traumatic symptoms.

PARENTS AND CARETAKERS’ ROLES

Parents and caretakers play a very important role in the child’s experience of the event and the symptoms the child might develop after the traumatic event.

For instance, if parents don’t believe that their child is telling the truth, it can create more damage, especially when a child has been exposed to physical or sexual abuse at the hands of another family member.

Parents can alleviate a child’s distress by taking the child’s reactions seriously and responding to the child’s needs for security and nurturance.

If the parents themselves have also been exposed to the traumatic event and they themselves struggle to cope with the event, this could also negatively affect the child, especially because children’s sense of safety is so tightly connected to the perceived safety and functioning of their parents.

After being exposed to trauma themselves, parents might display strong emotional reactions, become emotionally numb or unavailable, display more irritable reactions or engage in harsher parenting strategies. Some parents might withdraw more readily from their children as a result of the trauma symptoms they present with.

The changes that children can observe in their parents’ behaviours and emotional reactions can affect them in many different ways. Children can struggle with feeling scared and confused or worry excessively about their parents.

HOW PARENTS CAN SUPPORT THEIR TRAUMATISED CHILD

There are a number of things that parents can do to help their children cope more effectively with traumatic stress and the after-effects of a traumatic incident.

. TALK TO YOUR CHILD ABOUT THE TRAUMATIC INCIDENT

It is helpful when parents talk to their children about the trauma that took place and listen with an open mind to their child’s own personal experience of the traumatic event. It is best when parents do not have too many preconceived ideas about the impact that the event should have on the child.

Often children are taught how they should feel about certain events, but it is best when children are encouraged to use their own words to express their feelings. It is therefore parents’ listening ability and capacity to empathise with their children that are their greatest resources in terms of understanding the traumatic event from their child’s own unique perspective.

. TAKE YOUR CHILD’S REACTIONS SERIOUSLY

There are few things as damaging as a parent or caregiver who doubts whether a traumatic event took place at all. It is quite common for parents and caregivers to believe that their child is lying about sexual abuse at the hands of another family member. This narrative often serves as a defence mechanism, called denial. Even though denial may help a parent or caregiver to restore a sense of equilibrium when the reality of the situation might feel too distressing for them, it is extremely damaging to the child.

Your child needs you to trust what they are telling you and needs to be reassured that you are putting measures in place to protect them from further harm. It is therefore important that parents take their child’s reactions seriously and reassure the child that the traumatic event was not their fault.

. BE PHYSICALLY AND EMOTIONALLY PRESENT FOR YOUR CHILD

Parents can support their children as they work through the trauma by being physically and emotionally present. Make it clear to your child that you are there when they feel ready to talk about the event but try not to force them to open up before they are ready.

Loving interactions with caregivers can help a child to restore a sense of safety in their world and reduce the severity of trauma symptoms.

Elretha Bartlett – Counselling Psychologist
. GIVE YOUR CHILD SPACE TO EXPRESS THEIR EMOTIONS FREELY

It is important that parents give their children space to express their emotions freely. Try not to take your child’s reactions personally or punish your child for their reactions. Parents need to understand that a child’s reaction to a traumatic event should not be negatively judged. The child is dealing with the event in the best way they understand how to.

It is normal for children to experience anger, guilt and sadness after a trauma. It is important that parents practise patience and remind themselves that each child is different and has their own time frame to recover from a traumatic event.

. HELP YOUR CHILD RESTORE A SENSE OF SAFETY THROUGH ROUTINE AND STRUCTURE

Parents can also help their children feel safe in their world by developing a regular routine for their children and by keeping things in their children’s lives as predictable as possible. Trauma can make children feel helpless, uncertain and out of control, whereas routine and structure can help them to regain a sense of control over their environment.

. TEACH YOUR CHILD RELAXATION TECHNIQUES

Parents can also teach relaxation techniques to their child, by encouraging them to practice slow breathing and to listen to calm music. There are many guided meditation videos available online. If you do not have access to these videos, it could be helpful to teach your child to simply count their inhale and exhale breaths and to gradually slow down their breathing.

. FOCUS ON YOUR OWN HEALING AND SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP WHEN NEEDED

Parents furthermore need to focus on their own healing and seek professional help for themselves and their children, in the form of talk and play therapy. These therapies can be immensely helpful for you and your child to work through unresolved, and sometimes suppressed, thoughts and feelings.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, traumatised children need to experience a sense of safety and predictability in their world. There are many things that parents and caretakers can do to assist with this psychological task.

It is important that traumatised children receive structure in the form of a consistent routine. They also need to feel that their parents are approachable and will fulfil their needs for nurturance and emotional comfort.

Consistent caretaking, loving support and patience go a long way in terms of helping a child to restore a sense of safety in their environment.

If you’re in need of the support of a psychologist, either for your child or for yourself, please reach out by contacting me here

COMMENT
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Alanna

November 8,2021

Great article, exactly what I was looking for.

AUTHOR
Elretha Bartlett – Counselling Psychologist

Elretha Bartlett

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