Ten Steps to Take if Your Child is Exposed to a Traumatic Event

What it means to be exposed to a traumatic event varies greatly. The exposure can be direct (it happened to your child) or indirect (it happened to someone your child cares about). It can be a single event or repeated over time. Vulnerable children might also experience traumatic reactions when learning about something terrible that happened to strangers. Moreover, traumatic experiences themselves vary greatly (e.g., watching dad physically abuse mom and witnessing mom get hit and killed by a car are both traumatic, but one more than the other). For this reason, what follows can only be considered general advice that may need adaptation across a range of traumatic experiences and reactions.
#1. Try to keep adaptive rituals in place. Rituals are islands of stability in the torrential currents of our culture. Rituals promote a sense of stability and safety in a child’s life. One of the ways in which traumatic events are most damaging is in how they fracture a child’s basic assumptions about stability and safety. So, try to maintain as many of your usual daily, weekly, seasonal and special occasion rituals as you can. (See Chapter Four of my parenting book for an expanded discussion and a list of methods for pulling this off.)
#2. Monitor your child’s health habits. When excessively stressed our children may start to suffer impairing changes in their sleep, diet and level of physical activity. A brief period of these kinds of reactions is typical. However, if such persists for weeks it is a good idea to get assistance (see tip #9).
#3. Give your child the opportunity to discuss the trauma but do not force the issue. It’s important for kids to know that you, or others who are available (e.g., therapists, school personnel), are interested and willing to discuss the trauma whenever your child likes. However, sometimes kids cope by not talking about what is bothering them. Also keep in mind that younger children may deal best with these kinds of feelings by drawing or playing.
#4. If your child is traumatized by misfortune that has befallen someone else, engage him or her in a plan for making a contribution to reparative efforts. Perhaps your child might draw a picture of support, or help with some volunteer project (e.g., making food, conducting drives), or offer prayers. Making an active contribution can combat a feeling of powerlessness.
#5. If your child is traumatized by something that happened to him or her be careful to not give her or him the idea that it’s not okay to hurt around you. We parents hurt when our kids hurt, and often worse. So, it is natural for us to try to convince our kids, and ourselves, that they are not really in pain or that they are over their pain, when that isn’t the case. It’s very tough to provide empathy for the pain our kids experience, and to stay with them in that experience until they are ready to move on, but doing so is a major gift.
#6. Try to avoid blaming yourself. “If only I had…” is a very normative reaction for we parents when our kid has suffered a trauma. However, it’s rarely helpful as the resulting guilt and shame can have the paradoxical effect of making us less available for the kinds of responses that promote healing and resolution. (Of course, if poor choices or poor judgment on your part has caused the trauma, that is much trickier and would make #9 an even more important step to take.)
#7. Once your child’s pain has been given it’s due (and judging that point in time is an art form unto itself), help him or her to look for the opportunity imbued within all crises. That is, crisis = (pain/2) + (opportunity/2). As one poet put it, the pain is like a dragon guarding treasure. Or like Khalil Gibran put it “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Teaching our children to think about trauma in this way is a major way to promote resilience.
#8. Be on the watch for signs of depression (e.g., persisting depressed and/or irritable mood, diminished concentration, not taking pleasure in activities that used to be fun, appetite and/or sleep disturbance, self-blame, hopelessness, harmful thinking) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (e.g., avoiding situations, things or people that remind your child of the trauma, experiencing withdrawal from others or life in general, reliving the trauma in dreams or flashbacks, doing psychological back flips to avoid being reminded of the trauma).
#9. If you see signs of mental illness, or if the trauma is severe, please do not go at it alone. This is complicated business. So, for your child’s sake, your family’s sake and your sake, seek out the services of a qualified child psychologist or mental health professional. (See Chapter Ten of my parenting book for detailed guidance along these lines.)
#10. Don’t forget about self-care. Our self-care can be one of the first things we jettison off a ship that feels like it’s sinking. However, doing so is like throwing the life jackets overboard first. What good am I for my child if I’m breaking down? (Please see Chapter Seven of my parenting book for a detailed review of issues and methods.)

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