Trauma impacts everyone, and children are no exception. Shortly following a harrowing experience, such as domestic violence, children often exhibit common psychiatric symptoms like fear, anxiety, and depression.
Long-term, the damage can be even more grave, as trauma can cripple a child’s neurological development and lead to a range of debilitating psychiatric disorders.
Because children lack the meaningful life and emotional experiences necessary for coping, though, trauma can potentially hit children much harder than it would the typical adult.
As a parent, your behavior following a traumatic event can have significant impacts on how your child responds and recovers. You need to understand both the potential long-term consequences of trauma and the appropriate post-traumatic actions you should take so that your child can process their emotions safely and effectively.
The following tips will aid you in identifying the signs and symptoms of trauma, in addition to guiding you on how to respond in a manner that will aid your child’s recovery.
Recognizing Trauma and Its Impacts
It’s all too common for parents to not notice trauma or to dismiss their child’s obvious signals of emotional distress. In such scenarios, they might mistake a child’s negative response to trauma as simple moodiness and neglect to take significant action. Children involved in domestic violence, especially, are prone to long-term emotional distress, often overlooked.
Therefore, your first task should be to understand how you can recognize when your child is having painful feelings as a result of trauma and learn about the possible long-term impacts that untreated trauma may have on your child’s development.
To that point, the Journal of Psychiatric Practice has identified 17 significant psychiatric symptoms children may exhibit following trauma:
- Generalized anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Separation anxiety
- Reactivation of specific fears
- Dependent/regressive behavior
- Sleeping problems/nightmares
- Repetitive trauma-related play
- Attention and learning problems
- Intrusive recollections
- Cognitive Constriction
- Social withdrawal
- Somatic complaints
- Personality alterations
- Greater susceptibility to dangerous situations
What’s more, children might have specific symptoms that vary based upon their developmental stage. Preschoolers, for instance, are more likely to experience sleepwalking and sleep talking, while school-aged children will more often take to obsessing about details of their trauma in an attempt to cope.
Understanding these specific signals will help you realize when trauma has affected your child and get a jump on providing them with the support they need. Next, let’s discuss specific strategies you can use to aid your child through a traumatic experience.
Strategies for Coping With Trauma
Ideally, treatment for a traumatic childhood experience aims toward three central goals:
- Decreasing stress and building mental resilience to stress.
- Desensitizing your child to painful memories.
- Exploring the effects of trauma and easing unhelpful behaviors.
Having your child work with a mental health professional is one of the best ways to achieve these goals, and there will be plenty of opportunities for you to support your child in a manner that runs parallel with their professional treatment.
Trauma can shatter children’s view of relationships, damaging their ability to form healthy attachments with their parents or caregivers. Because of this, forming a bond of trust with your child is critical to improving their feelings of safety and security.
Start with your words, by reassuring your child that you are there for them, but maintain consistency with action — following through with the things you say you are going to do and never making promises that you cannot keep. In maintaining a high level of honesty, you can lay the groundwork for other strategies that will help your child in coping.
Allowing Room for Emotion
Trauma can cause children to withdraw, but with trust established, you can provide your child with the comfort they need to honestly express their feelings.
Transparency, in turn, will allow you to start addressing feelings like depression as a team. In time, you can help your child learn to identify the triggers for complex emotions and practice techniques for processing these emotions more healthily.
Creating a Safe Space for Healing
Trauma might distort your child’s ability to process sensory stimuli correctly. As a result, they may become overwhelmed by sights, sounds, smells, and even tastes and touch.
To counteract this, you might want to consider reconfiguring your living spaces to better accommodate their heightened sensitivity.
Sensory-friendly furniture and decor, for instance, can contribute to a calmer environment that helps settle your child’s mind. Combine this with other strategies for creating a peaceful ambiance — such as decluttering and organizing your home — to cultivate an atmosphere more conducive to your child’s recovery.
Building Strength and Fortitude
Finally, you can contribute by helping your child build resistance to stress and anxiety. This will include practicing some of the golden rules of mental strength, such as reframing how they deal with negative thoughts and criticism but should be coupled both with ample amounts of physical activity and proper nutrition.
Sports and outside time will help your child burn off excess energy while simultaneously releasing mood-enhancing brain chemicals that can improve their outlook. Meanwhile, eating healthier (less sugar, less junk food, and more healthy fats and vegetables) will translate to an improved overall mood and an increased ability to cope with stress.
Stay Active in Your Support
It is not uncommon for children to suffer from the effects of trauma. As a parent, continued support can help your child process their emotions and cope with traumatic experiences.
In tandem with mental health treatment, strive for trust and transparency, all the while creating a home atmosphere that will maximize their healing and minimize the deleterious impacts of their negative feelings.