Surviving Childhood: An Introduction to the Impact of Trauma

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Lesson 3: After the Trauma: The Costs of Coping
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After the Trauma: The Costs of Coping

Basic Guidelines for Those Living or Working With Traumatized Children:

1. Don't be afraid to talk about the traumatic event. Children do not benefit from "not thinking about it" or "putting it out of their minds." If children sense that caretakers are upset about the event, they will not bring it up. In the long run, this only makes the child's recovery more difficult. Don't bring it up on your own, but when the child brings it up, don't avoid discussion. Listen to the child, answer questions, and provide comfort and support. We may not have good verbal explanations, but listening and not avoiding or overreacting to the subject, and then comforting the child, will have a critical and long-lasting positive effect.

  1. 2. Provide a consistent, predictable pattern for the day. Make sure the child has a structure to the day and knows the pattern. Try to have consistent times for meals, school, homework, quiet time, playtime, dinner, and chores. When the day includes new or different activities, tell the child beforehand and explain why this day's pattern is different. Don't underestimate how important it is for children to know that their caretakers are in control. It is frightening for traumatized children (who are sensitive to control) to sense that the people caring for them are, themselves, disorganized, confused, and anxious. Adults are not expected to be perfect; caregivers themselves have often been affected by the trauma and may be overwhelmed, irritable, or anxious. If you find yourself feeling this way, simply help the child understand why, and explain that these reactions are normal and will pass.

3. Be nurturing, comforting, and affectionate, but be sure that this is in an appropriate context. For children traumatized by physical or sexual abuse, intimacy is often associated with confusion, pain, fear, and abandonment. Providing hugs, kisses, and other physical comfort to younger children is very important. A good working principle for this is to be physically affectionate when the child seeks it. If the child walks over and touches you, return it in kind.

Try not to interrupt the child's play or other free activities by grabbing them and holding them, and be aware that many children from chronically distressed settings may have what we call attachment problems. They will have unusual and often inappropriate styles of interacting. Do not tell or command them to "give me a kiss" or "give me a hug." Abused children often take words very seriously, and commands reinforce a very malignant association linking intimacy/physical comfort with power (which is inherent in a caregiving adult's command to "hug me").

4. Discuss your expectations for behavior and your style of discipline with the child. Make sure that the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules are clear. Make sure that both you and the child understand beforehand the specific consequences for compliant and non-compliant behaviors. Be consistent when applying consequences. Use flexibility in consequences to illustrate reason and understanding. Utilize positive reinforcement and rewards. Avoid physical discipline.

5. Talk with the child. Give them age appropriate information. The more the child knows about who, what, where, why, and how the adult world works, the easier it is to make sense of it. Unpredictability and the unknown are two things that will make a traumatized child more anxious, fearful, and, therefore, more symptomatic. They may become more hyperactive, impulsive, anxious, and aggressive, and have more sleep and mood problems. Without factual information, children (and adults) speculate and fill in the empty spaces to make a complete story or explanation. In most cases, the child's fears and fantasies are much more frightening and disturbing than the truth. Tell the child the truth, even when it is emotionally difficult. If you don't know the answer yourself, tell the child. Honesty and openness will help the child develop trust.

6. Watch closely for signs of reenactment (e.g., in play, drawing, behaviors), avoidance (e.g., being withdrawn, daydreaming, avoiding other children) and physiological hyperreactivity (e.g., anxiety, sleep problems, behavioral impulsivity). All traumatized children exhibit some combination of these symptoms in the acute post-traumatic period. Many exhibit these symptoms for years after the traumatic event. When you see these symptoms, it is likely that the child has had some reminder of the event, either through thoughts or experiences. Try to comfort and be tolerant of the child's emotional and behavioral problems. Again, these symptoms will wax and wane -- sometimes for no apparent reason. Record the behaviors and emotions you observe and try to notice patterns in the behavior.

7. Protect the child. Do not hesitate to cut short or stop activities that are upsetting or re-traumatizing for the child. If you observe increased symptoms in a child that occur in a certain situation or following exposure to certain movies or activities, avoid them. Try to restructure or limit these activities to avoid re-traumatization.

8. Give the child choices and some sense of control. When a child, particularly a traumatized child, feels that they do not have control of a situation. they will predictably get more symptomatic. If a child is given some choice or some element of control in an activity or in an interaction with an adult, they will feel safer and more comfortable and will be able to feel, think, and act in a more mature fashion. When a child is having difficulty with compliance, frame the consequence as a choice for them: "You have a choice -- you can choose to do what I have asked or you can choose . . ." Again, this simple framing of the interaction with the child gives them some sense of control and can help defuse situations where the child feels out of control, and therefore anxious.

9. If you have questions, ask for help. These brief guidelines can only give you a broad framework for working with a traumatized child. Knowledge is power: the more informed you are and the more you understand the child, the better you can provide them with the support, nurturing, and guidance they need. Take advantage of resources in your community. In the final course lesson, we will talk about how to access some of these resources. While each community has agencies, organizations, and individuals coping with the same issues, you may need assistance finding the expertise that can help traumatized children.


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