What to Know About Parenting a Child Who Experienced Trauma

Parenting can be a challenge in the best of circumstances, but when a child has experienced something traumatic, parenting may require an extra layer of sensitivity, understanding, and patience. Trauma can stem from abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, or even natural disasters, and its effects on children can be drastic. As a parent or caregiver, knowing how to support your child through their healing is important.

Recognize the Signs

All children react differently to trauma. Their response to the experience may not be what you expect.

  • Behavioral changes – acting out at school, being argumentative, or emotional outbursts
  • Withdrawal or social isolation
  • Preoccupation with the event
  • Regression to earlier stages of development
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Headaches or stomachaches
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks or reliving the event

Trauma can also affect a child’s brain development, particularly in the areas that control emotions, memory, and cognitive functioning. This may present as learning difficulties, gaps in memory, and lack of emotional regulation.

Create a Safe and Supportive Environment

During the healing journey, parents will want to build a safe and predictable environment. Consistent routines, clear expectations, and maintaining a calm atmosphere can help children feel secure. Ensure that they are safe and reassure them that you will always protect them.

Children may also act unpredictably, having intense emotional reactions or even shutting down and having no reaction at all. Be patient. Understand that these behaviors are ways that your child is coping. Reassure and validate them while remaining calm. Your response to the event is important to them.

Communication and Connection

Encourage your child that it is okay to talk about the event and that their experiences and feelings are valid. Let them know that you will always be ready to listen when they are ready to share. This will help build trust and show them that their emotions are important.

When speaking about the trauma, be mindful of the words you use. Avoid phrases that indicate blame, especially when it comes to their thoughts and feelings about the event. Instead, use supportive language, reflect what they say back to them, and ask for clarification if you do not understand.

Self-Care for Parents

Supporting your child through trauma can be emotionally draining. Make sure to carve out alone time where you nourish your energy and tend to your personal needs. This will allow for you to be fully present for your child during their healing process.

Surround yourself with a network of friends, family, and trusted individuals who can offer support and advice. Sharing your experiences can feel incredibly comforting and helpful.

Helping Your Child Recover

There are many strategies parents or caregivers can try to promote healing for their child.

  • Give your child time to engage in pleasurable activities, such as recreational sports, playing with friends, video games, outdoor play, and creative arts.
  • Do not force eating or sleeping habits. Offer your child snacks throughout the day if they refuse to eat a meal, and encourage them to take naps either after school or throughout the day.
  • Keep them involved in any type of physical exercise. This could even include going on a walk after dinner together.
  • Encourage relaxation time by drawing warm baths, get them massages, reading them stories, and even providing them with physical affection such as hugging or cuddling.
  • Be aware of triggers and intervene when you notice an intense emotional response.

Professional Support

As a caregiver, it is important to educate yourself on trauma and understanding its effects. There are many resources available, such as books, online courses, support groups, and even personal therapy.

For your child, seek help from therapists who specialize in trauma and play therapy. Professionals can provide tools and resources to help you and your child cope. They offer individual or family therapy sessions that include some type of play or art therapy that can be effective for young children.