Defining Trauma In Children

As parents, we seek to protect our children from harm and preserve their innocence as long as possible. After all, childhood is fleeting and the responsibility and weightiness of adulthood arrive soon enough. Perhaps the most frightening thing about parenting is the ultimate lack of control we have when it comes to determining the outcomes of our children’s lives. We desperately want our children to be happy and in many cases, sacrifice our own comforts to ensure theirs. We want our children to make good choices and try to instill values that shape a strong character. However, what if we take all the appropriate parenting “steps” yet life still deals our child a particularly difficult or unexpected set of circumstances?

The reality is no matter how attentive a parent you might be, no one can protect a child from an unexpected danger or unforeseen event. Life can be insecure and is hardly bulletproof. When counselors or mental health clinicians help a child who is suffering the effects of their steady world having turned “upside down,” they might say he or she is suffering the effects of trauma or a traumatic event. Trauma is usually, but not always sudden and unexpected. It is perceived as dangerous and threatens a child’s ability to cope or maintain any sense of control. In other words, at the very heart of a traumatic response is a child’s anxious sense that things are definitely not okay. A traumatized child will seek to demonstrate in so many ways that all is not well with her world and oftentimes her behaviors will clue a parent into this very fact: something is not right. Other key components of trauma include intense feelings of helplessness, terror and lack of control. Even though trauma is a clinical term and professionals readily assess traumatic disorders, trauma is not black and white. What is traumatic for one child may simply be difficult or uncomfortable for another. Trauma is different for everyone. Keeping this in mind, traumatic events may include, but are not limited to: the unexpected loss of a loved or familiar person, school violence, domestic violence, community violence, neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse or natural disasters.

As parents and caregivers, how should we respond to a traumatized child? Research points to the caregiver or parental response being a key element in a child’s healing. In order to provide a helpful response for your child, remember two key things:

1. Trauma is something children CAN recover from. When treating children who experienced a traumatic event parents would often say to me: “Is he ever going to be okay?” The life of a child is an extraordinarily hopeful one. They have a tremendous capacity to learn, digest, take in and absorb new experiences. My answer to parents was typically a resounding, “YES!” While counselors have no magic wands, nor can they predict the future, research shows there is hope with solid, long-term treatment. It is untreated trauma that is most concerning.

2. Internalizing your child’s trauma makes it more difficult for your child. It is undeniable that a traumatized child most often means a traumatized family. The bond between parent and child is too strong to suppose that a pained child would create no emotional response in his or her parent. However, it is the parents’ job to keep their emotions in check or at least keep them private. This can be extraordinarily difficult, but it’s important to practice. When a child’s world is upside down, she is in need of consistent, steady and patient love, not over-the-top emotional responses. Mom’s crying fits for example would further a child’s sense that all is not well. However, Mom’s tender and patient reassurance that “this might be hard, but we’re going to get through it together” is honest, yet instills confidence that things are turning “right side up.”

As a departing word, take time to find a counseling professional you trust. There are many mental health professionals who “treat” trauma, but what kind of treatment do they use? Is it “trauma focused?” Does it address the behaviors or feelings you are observing in your child? Is the professional able to back-up his or her approach with the latest clinical research? And perhaps most importantly, does it seem like your child really enjoys this professional? Oftentimes, kids are hesitant to talk about their trauma, but a strong, child-friendly professional should be warm, inviting and kind and your child should always leave the office feeling more cared-for than when you entered.

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