Trauma is an experience which completely overwhelms a person’s ability to cope, causing them to feel overwhelmed. Examples of events that might be traumatic include experiencing or witnessing abuse, natural disasters like floods or fires, and life-threatening situations like severe car accidents or school shootings. While these events may be ‘in the past’ now, traumatic memories get stored differently from other types of memories, causing part of the brain and body to react like the traumatic experience is still ongoing.
You may be familiar with the way media shows Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): often a military veteran, who has flashbacks when something reminds him of the war. The reality is that trauma can affect people in a number of ways, especially for children.
A young child may compulsively re-enact the trauma using their toys. They may “regress” to earlier stages of development, such as “baby talking” or difficulties with toileting during the day or night. They may become clingy with caregivers or become socially withdrawn. Emotionally, they may appear sad, anxious, angry, or any combination of the three. They may have a hard time staying still or focusing, as their brain and body are reminded of the traumatic experience. They may seem to “space out” or “shut down” at times. They may develop new fears of people, places, things, or even smells and sounds that remind them in some way of the trauma.
If a child you know has experienced or witnessed something that may have been traumatic, or you see a sudden change in their behavior (such as any of the above symptoms), how can you help?
One of the things you can do is to be a safe and supportive adult in their life. Studies have found that having just one supportive adult can make a big difference for children’s wellbeing. They may want to talk about what they have been through, or they may not be ready to talk about it, because the emotions it brings up can be overwhelming.
Another thing you can do to help them is bringing them to therapy. There are a number of types of therapy that have been found to be successful in helping children work through and move on from trauma, including play therapy and a number of types of talk therapy.
If the child wants to talk about the trauma, there are several ways you can support them. Letting them know you understand their feelings, with statements like, “That sounds like it was really scary,” can help children know you are listening and it’s okay to have those emotions. In some cases, children may need to be reassured that the trauma was not their fault in any way, and that they are safe now. It can often be painful for adults to hear that their child has been through something traumatic and seeking out your own therapist can also be a great way to make sure you’re able to be there for the child.
Lastly, remember that you and your family are not alone. Childhood trauma is more common than people realize, and there is no shame in getting support. Early intervention can help a child process the trauma right away. Another important note is to recognize that persons who experienced childhood trauma grow up to be adults who may sometimes struggle with after affects of their experience. It is never too late to get help.
Jasmine Vasquez is a Mental Health Practitioner-Clinical Trainee providing school linked mental health services with Therapeutic Services Agency, Inc., which provides services in Pine City, Sandstone and local schools, to help people cope and heal from trauma experiences. For more information visit www.hoperealized.com or call 320-629-7600.