Part IV-Parenting tips for children with trauma
It’s normal to feel insecure and even scared while helping your child through a traumatic event. However, your child loves and trusts you and therefore needs your help during the healing process. At times, I’ve worked with parents who prefer to leave their child’s ‘therapy at therapy’ out of the fear that they might do something wrong or make things worse.
Let me share a quick metaphor.
Why parenting is a lot like river rafting
Imagine this: you’ve planned an exciting river rafting trip with your family and you’re driving up to the mouth of the river with the family to meet the river guide. Your kids are a little nervous, but you assure them that the raft will float and they’ll be really glad they did it when it’s over. Your family shows up to the dock and the river guide hands you all of the necessary safety equipment. The guide seems confident and so you follow along when he asks you to step on the raft.
The rapids are calm at first and everything seems safe. Your guide points out landmarks and animals and cracks a few jokes. It’s a beautiful day and the family is loving their first rafting trip. You’re feeling good and pat yourself on the back for coming up with such a cool idea. You notice the river is calm and smooth and you ask yourself “This isn’t that bad. Is this it? I didn’t think it would be this easy!”
You were right. It won’t be.
The rapids quickly turn into HUGE waves and the raft is jumping high straight up into the air, only to crash back down into the water, in what feels like a larger, deadlier version of musical chairs as your family bounces around and scrambles for a seat. You’re doubting the whole idea of coming on this trip when you look down and see your child frantically clinging to you with a death grip… and looking to you for help.
You look back at the guide for some assurance, but he’s focused on his job, yelling out directions, steering the raft away from the jagged rocks and avoiding the dangerous under-the-surface currents that he’s aware of because he’s been down this river before.
In this heart pounding moment, do you wait for the guide to see your child and reach out and assure them? Of course not.
That’s ridiculous right? You would put your arm around them, hold on to them, and let them know they were safe and and that you’re going through this together.
The same can be said for a family struggling with a traumatic event.
In this metaphor, the therapist acts as the river guide, the passengers on the boat are the treatment team, and the river is the journey of the healing and recovery. Your family therapist will guide you through the trip, point out signs of danger, point out trauma triggers and show you how to handle stressful situations that might come up.
Just like you wouldn’t push aside the river guide/therapist and take over his job, the therapist won’t take over your role as the parent either.
You have a HUGE role in the healing process that only YOU can fill.
5 things only parents can do
1. Compromise on control
During the traumatic event your child experienced, they suffered a loss. This ‘loss’ takes many shapes- it could be a loss of freedom, a loss of choice, a loss of a loved one, or the innocence and the belief that the world was safe. Your child couldn’t control the situation and someone or something was lost. Because of this loss, a fierce determination to ‘be in control’ was born. You probably know what I’m talking about, don’t worry it’s very normal and is really just a defense mechanism to keep their world a safe place that they can control.
When trauma patients feel like they have lost control, they often resort to a reptilian response of ‘fight or flight’ (we’ll talk about this more in the next few posts). .In the moments of irrational rage and anger, you can help them by compromising on control. Find something that they can control in that very moment and give them control. You can do this by giving them control of how they choose to calm down, choosing to take deep breaths, listen to music, or going on a walk.
You can also give them choices that aren’t related to their immediate feelings like “Would you like to choose what’s for dinner, or what movie we watch tonight?” The context of the battle is irrelevant, but the battle to them is everything. Why?
They find safety and comfort in having control. Be willing to compromise.
2. Be proactive, not reactive
Being proactive in identifying in identifying your child’s triggers will make an immediate impact on the home environment. If your child is triggered by loud noises, bright lights, or certain smells-remove them. Your child will thank you. Your child is dealing with enough right now and is just trying to keep it together.. Removing triggers early on allows them to settle back into life and get their bearings. When your child is ready the family therapist will introduce triggers back into the child’s life through scaled exposure in a safe and non-threatening way. Until then, make the home a safe-haven where your child feels at ease.
3. Avoid the power struggle
This seems like common sense, but in the throws of an intense power struggle with a child who has dug their heels in, it’s very challenging. As discussed before, children with trauma feel safe when they are in control. Because of this yearning for control, they might feel like arguing about what’s for dinner, if you’re driving fast enough, or even if the sky is blue. Instead of trying to debate why they’re wrong or prove your point, remove the battle for control by leaving the room and giving them space.
Preferably, there would be no physical intervention, ever. If their safety is at risk due to their behavior, use the absolute least amount of physical intervention possible. This is imperative, physically restraining children with trauma, holding them down against their will, spanking them-these just reinforce the children’s belief that they have again lost control. Not only that, physical force often triggers past experiences and only traumatizes them further.
4. Use positive affirmations “I love you, it’s going to be okay” or “You’re safe, I’m not going anywhere”.
When a child is triggered, use short key phrases to remind them that they are safe. Statements such as;
“I love you, I’m here for you.” or “You’re safe. I’m not going anywhere” can be just what the child needs to feel reassured and safe. In all honesty, this can be REALLY difficult.
However, these statements are helpful and reassuring to children because you’re confirming your commitment to them.
While you might be thinking “knock it off-you’re fine”, using phrases like “It’s okay, you’re safe” go a long way in helping them re-develop trust in the world and imperative to their sense of safety. .
It’s very important then that regardless of a child’s behavior they feel safe. Each morning and night should start and end with a hug and a positive affirmation statement, again the key word here is …wait for it…REGARDLESS of their behavior.
While privileges and extra rewards should be conditional, a parents love and attention should never be tied to a child’s behavior. As hard as this is, especially after those REALLY challenging days, a hug and a “I love you, I’m still here” overrides their past history and unsafe beliefs.
5. Scheduled daily ‘Calm-Down’ time teaches self-regulation
Children pick up a lot of emotional junk throughout the day. Maybe someone teased them at school, a teacher told them ‘no’, or they were embarressed when they fell off the monkey bars. Children with trauma struggle dealing suppressing these emotions and they often rise to the top via fighting and being defiant. By implementing a daily ‘calm-down’ time into their schedule, they begin learning how to self-regulate their emotions. In calm down time, they can take deep breaths, read, listen to music, or whatever might help them calm down to their place of normal. This begins to teach them that their emotions are directly related to what they are doing in the moment.
With time they recognize that they can ‘control’ how they respond and react to their emotions.
That’s a wrap
Feelings of helplessness and being overwhelmed are all too common when you have a child who has experienced trauma and while it’s true that mental health professionals are trained to resolve a lot of issues inside of therapy, parents still play and must play an enormous role outside of therapy. A child with trauma requires a lot of love, patience, support and understanding around the clock that only a parent can provide.
Try these 5 tips and let us know how it goes!
COMING UP NEXT: Triggers, Trauma and Rage