There are many myths about trauma out in the world. There is a plethora of very inaccurate statements and general beliefs about children who have experienced traumatic incidences, and how they should or should not be behaving, as well as how their caregivers should be supporting them. It’s confusing, and absolutely not helpful whatsoever to the children living with trauma.
In order to understand child reactions to trauma, we first need to understand what trauma is. According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is an “emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster” (American Psychological Association). Trauma is when we experience a potentially life threatening event, or a situation that gives us a wave of deep fear, and continues to haunt us after the event is over. Trauma can impede our daily life, it can change the way we live and interact with others, as well as an innumerable amount of other adverse results. In accordance to this, every person on this earth experiences events and situations differently. What is traumatic to one, may not be traumatic to another. For example, Sally could be in a car accident and be too scared to drive again. Whitney could be in the same exact car accident, and though scared and concerned about what occurred, has no residual fear about getting back on the road. Some people need therapy, others can heal independently, or do not need healing at all. Some have severe trauma, so much so that they have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, while others do not have any hindrance on their daily life.
Trauma is different for every single person, and children are not excluded. Such a magnitude of people love saying, “Children are resilient, ___________ will be fine.” Though I completely agree that children are incredibly resilient, courageous superstars, that does not mean we can or should leave them to their own devices. Resiliency occurs, perhaps because of who a child is innately, but also because of the child’s support system and routine daily life.
With every person experiencing trauma differently, reactions are just as variegated. In terms of children, there is no telling how they could react, other than it’s on a spectrum of possibilities. What is good to know, and to keep an eye out for when you know a child has experienced trauma, is any behavior that is abnormal for the child. This may be a result of the traumatic event. A child who is relatively quiet may start acting out, or they could completely shut themselves out. Bed wetting, tantrums, and lying are all possibilities. Nightmares, fear of the future or of different places, experiences, or people. Crying, inappropriate sexual behavior, or attention seeking activities are all ways a child could be attempting to cope with their trauma. There are times when Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is actually misdiagnosed in children who actually have trauma, due to the child’s coping presenting as symptoms of ADHD (i.e. Inability to focus, outbursts, always moving around, etc.). Bottom line: Trauma is experienced differently by everyone, and everyone can react uniquely as a result.
Now that we know this, what can we do to help children with trauma cope? How do we provide an effective healing environment? Honestly the answer is quite simple. From my time at a child advocacy center, we often told parents (who’s children experienced sexual abuse), the best things to do would be provide structure, believe your child, do not ask them about what happened unless they talk to you first, and let them know that you are there for them. Children need structure and routine to thrive. Giving them just that will allow them to not have to worry about what is happening next, and to focus simply on healing and living a child’s life. Believing your child and ensuring they understand that you support them, is immensely important with trauma. Many people, specifically in child sexual abuse, do not believe their children or their disclosures. This breaks my heart, especially when there are obvious behavioral signs of trauma and pain. So even though it may be the most difficult decision, please choose your child over anything else.
Moreover, understanding what specifically your child needs to cope is highly beneficial. Do they need to sleep with a night light? Do they love listening to music when they’re experiencing their feelings and emotions? Maybe they have a specific toy or stuffed animal that comforts them? Something small like this can add another level of comfort and support for the healing child. Lastly, take your child’s healing seriously. If they have therapy once a week, please take them on time and consistently. If they finally confide in you about their trauma, listen with love and compassion. Allow them to feel safe and supported. Give them a wonderful nest for healing, and understand that it may take time for things to feel “normal” again, if they ever do.
We all have diverse life experiences and ways of healing. I hope you understand that children are no different. They hurt in different ways, and show the world that pain in distinct manners as well. After reading this, I hope you walk away with a better understanding of childhood trauma, and how you can support children that are healing so that they may become strong and resilient kiddos, that eventually even stronger and fiercer adults and world changers.
~Laura Swanson, BSW
American Psychological Association (n.d.). Trauma. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/