Two Ways to Help Children Heal From Traumatic Events
BY Carly Samudre @ The Cypress Counseling Group
Are you a parent or caregiver to a child who has experienced trauma or has come from a difficult place? Do you love someone who has been through a traumatic event?
If you have, your heart may be filled with so many deep emotions, it could feel overwhelming. When your loved ones hurt, you hurt. After all, you’re their protector and their guide. But, you aren’t perfect. At times you may feel at your wit’s end, without knowing how to help. If you’ve ever felt this way, I want to first say this to you:
You’re a good mom. You’re a good dad. I know that about you, because you’re reading an article about loving your kid right now.
You’re not alone. You’re human… But the way you parent will look very different from others because of one very specific factor: your precious child has experienced or witnessed a trauma. A trauma is defined as any emotional response to a terrible event, where you feel scared, confused, or powerless.
As a parent, you want to shield your kids from the chaos going on in the world. But with the increase of widespread traumatic events (like a school shooting, or a natural disaster), or the ongoing struggle of a child who experienced trauma in his or her early years of life (even in utero during a traumatic pregnancy or birth), it can seem overwhelming, even impossible, to protect your kids.
You may not know how to help your child when they’ve experienced trauma, but there are some guiding principles that you can do to help. You can help your child learn to process and heal from a traumatic event. You can have a trusting and loving relationship with your child. You can empower your kids to grow with resilience.
You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be present and willing. We know that after a traumatic event, people need 3 things to begin to heal:
Empathy. Think of empathy as connection & emotional support. It’s a feeling with, not a feeling sorry for.
A Non-judgmental Space. The key word is space. Sometimes we need space to process, and our children will as well.
Felt Safety. This is a literal feeling of being safe, not just knowing it.
The therapist’s office is often the only place parents mistakenly think their kids can begin to heal. But by following these two Trauma-Informed Care considerations, you can begin creating that space for your kids today, in your own home:
Slow down and connect.
Many times, parents are overwhelmed with their kids “acting out” or “withdrawing” reactions from trauma. Remember, your child may be in survival mode, and he or she may not know how to make sense of what they feel.
Help your child regulate these emotions through connection. Slowing down and taking deep breaths begins to slow down your own nervous system if you’re getting activated. Next, get on your child’s level - literally. Physically kneel down, or sit next to her and just be there. Be mindful of your face and your tone. The mirror neurons in your child’s brain will begin to “light up” when you get face to face with your child. Make sure your face matches the response you want your child to move towards. Ask them what hurts, what’s wrong, and what’s happening for them. By paying attention, you show them their feelings matter.
You can also keep the H.A.L.T. acronym in mind as you connect. Hungry - Angry - Lonely - Tired. If your child has been processing the event, but is still having trouble in school or at home, they might need more daily guidance in understanding their “inner world.” Try asking, “Are you hungry, angry, lonely, or tired?” This will help your kids think & name their feelings, energy level, or physical needs (like food or water). Then, meet the need. Give them a snack, or spend more time connecting if they feel lonely. After the need is met, go back and have them tell the story of what is happening for them.
2. Name it, Tame it
I don’t know about you, but when I’m scared, I don’t always know why. Help your kids begin to “name it” so they can “tame it.” When we wrap words around how we’re feeling, it’s not so all-encompassing any more. In their book Whole-Brained Child, Seigel & Bryson talk about helping kids connect their left brain (logic functions) with their right brain (emotion functions). That’s very simplified, but what it means is that helping your kids understand the facts, as well as their emotions, helps them to understand that they are safe with you.
The concept of “name it, tame it” allows for emotional regulation to occur. Think of it as telling a story. Let your children talk about what happened to them. Ask them about factual things (“what happened”) and emotional things (“how did you feel”). You may think “talking about it” will just make them feel worse, but that’s not necessarily the case. Ask a counselor for help on this one if you don’t feel equipped.
Just remember that you are a GOOD mom. You are a GOOD dad. Healing will happen slowly, and with small, incremental change over time. Being consistent, being gracious to yourself and being compassionate towards your child will make a significant difference in the long haul.
Carly Samudre provides Master's Level Counseling for adult women, teen girls, and college students in the Greater Nashville Area— empowering them to be the confident, secure, and free woman they long to be.