Most children will be exposed to a psychologically traumatic event during their childhood. Simply stated, psychological trauma is any event that overwhelms the brain’s ability to integrate thee experience and triggers the fight-flight-freeze response. The individual perceives the event as a threat to life, health or sanity, or the person may witness that same threat to someone else.

The Sidran Institute describes psychological trauma this way: “A traumatic event or situation creates psychological trauma when it overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope . . .”

According the Adverse Childhood Effects Study conducted by Kaiser Permanente, 87% of children will experience at least one adverse childhood effect before they reach the age of 18. Many will experience more. Studies demonstrate that traumatic experiences can have a long-term psychological effect on children.

So how can parents support their kids after they experience a traumatic event?

  • Learn to identify the different kinds of child and youth trauma. When we think about child trauma, we tend to think about sexual abuse, car accidents, or natural disasters. But we don’t often think about medical trauma, exposure to violence, adoption, divorce, the death of a family member, neglect or abandonment, or other overwhelming stresses for a child or teen.
  • Know what to look for. Children are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic event. Symptoms include age regression, bedwetting, nightmares and flashbacks, agitation, fearfulness, hyper vigilance, intense anger, mood changes, sleep difficulties, startling easily, becoming fearful, avoiding people, places or things related to the experience, and re-experiencing the event when triggered (smells, sights, sounds, circumstances, places, people etc. that were part of the event).

It can be common for children (and adults) to experience PTSD in the weeks following a traumatic event as a normal part of recovery. However, if symptoms persist beyond three to six months, their PTSD likely needs treatment. Between 10- to 20% of young people experience persistent PTSD after experiencing a single incident of trauma. As the number of traumas rise, the percentage rises.

  • Lead by modeling. One key factor to recovery from trauma is family and social support. As a parent, you play the key role. Although you want to provide extra care and protection, be sure you tend to your physical and mental health needs and portray confidence and security to your child. You kids will likely model your response to trauma.

Don’t focus on the past threat or danger or use “You could have…” language. Help your child see himself or herself as a survivor. Talk about ways you grew through challenging times in your life.

  • Let them talk. Provide opportunities for your child to talk about their experience and their thoughts and feelings about it. Remember, trauma creates a disconnection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This causes confusion and makes communicating about the event extremely hard. Trauma can create feelings that words cannot describe, even when our brain is functioning normally.
  • Respond, don’t react. Your reactions may trigger your child, and they’re already feeling overwhelmed. Following a trauma, some children do not want to be looked in the eye. Remain calm and keep your tone assuring and loving. Lower your voice if your child’s response escalates. Acknowledge their feelings and reassure them. Don’t state or imply blame for their actions or responses.
  • Encourage creativity. Right brain activities can help the brain process trauma. Writing, drawing, art and art therapy, and even dance are helpful mediums for expression following trauma.
  • Be patient. Be consistent and predictable. Develop a routine for meals, school, play or social time, and bedtime. Give advance warning for changes or new experiences. Refrain from telling them to avoid things that remind them of the event or cause them to worry. For instance, if they had a traumatic injury while riding a horse, encourage them to take small steps to return to riding. If your child is reluctant to talk, let them know you’re there for them when they’re ready and feel able to open up.

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