Parents & Caregivers

The video below contains content related to child trauma experiences, including abuse and neglect that may not be suitable for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.

I Think My Child Has Experienced Trauma… What Should I Look For?

You may notice small or large changes in your child’s behavior, mood, or personality following a traumatic event. These may last for short or longer periods of time and may emerge immediately after the event or even weeks, months, or years later. Each child’s experience in response to trauma is unique, but it generally varies based on the child’s age, developmental stage, the type of traumatic experience, and the child’s personality. Check out the chart from our webpage “What is Child Trauma” for examples of signs and symptoms of traumatic stress in approximate age groups.

How Do I Talk To My Child About Trauma?

Speaking with your child about a traumatic event can be overwhelming and unfamiliar to one or both of you. You might be uncertain about where to begin, what to say, or how much to ask your child. These are experiences parents and caregivers often have. You do not have to be an expert in child trauma to discuss the experience. You can support your child by conveying and reinforcing important messages to them about their safety and well-being.

The messages to convey when you talk about trauma with your child include:

  • Your child is safe now
  • The traumatic event is not your child’s fault
  • You are sorry the traumatic event happened
  • You will do your best to protect your child from future pain and suffering
  • Your child was and still is a good person

 

Talking to your child about trauma can be difficult and sensitive for both of you. Below are a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Remain calm.

Children may pick up on your own emotional reaction to the situation. It is important to remain calm when having conversations about trauma. While it is okay to show emotion (e.g. crying), it can be traumatic for a child to see a parent or adult display extreme emotions like sadness, screaming, throwing things, etc. in response to something your child shared with you. A child may feel guilty if he/she believes that they caused you pain. If you do not feel that you are in an emotionally stable place to have a conversation with your child about their trauma, or if your own possible trauma history may influence how you react, you may also want to consider seeking support  for yourself.

2. Meet them where they are.

Remember that children are not always able to process or understand information in the same way as adults. Some children may be able to talk more openly about their experience than others. You may ask your child questions, but try to respect his/her limits and allow your child take the lead during the conversation. Some children may speak about it and recover quickly while others will recover more slowly. Try not to push your child to “just get over it” or “tell every detail.” Understand that while you as an adult may have the tools, skills, and knowledge to overcome trauma or traumatic events, children may not have these same skills.  Remember, an event that may seem insignificant or easy to overcome to you could be much more traumatic for your child.

Alternatively, you may be struggling to cope with the traumatic event that happened to your child. If your child is seeing that you have strong reactions, he/she may become fearful or anxious around wanting to talk about it with you. If this is the case, it might be an opportunity for you to considering seeking out therapy.

3. Let them know it is not their fault.

Your child may blame him/herself for the traumatic experience. This is especially common in traumatic events including, but not limited to physical/sexual abuse or parental divorce. This may be more common with younger children because they have difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives and understanding who takes responsibility for certain actions. Your child may have also been directly blamed by the person that harmed him/her. As the caregiver, you can assure your child that it is not his/her fault and you can work to diminish his/her sense of guilt and restore a positive sense of self.

4. Let your child know that there is no right or wrong way to feel or grieve after a traumatic event.

Every child will react to a traumatic event differently because every experience is unique and every child is unique. This is okay. For this reason, it may be difficult for you to gauge or predict what event your child will experience as traumatic, when he or she experiences traumatic stress symptoms, or how he or she may be triggered. When talking to your child about their traumatic experience, assure them that their response is normal and accepted.

5. Allow your child to ask questions and be honest if you don’t know the answers.

Allow your child to be the leader of the conversation about his/her trauma experience. Even though your child knows his/her experience better than you, it is common and appropriate for your child to ask questions about trauma, including how or why a traumatic event happens. Being open and honest with your child is important. Also remember, you don’t have to be an expert in child trauma. If you can’t answer a question or are uncertain about how to talk to your child on certain subjects, talk to your child’s trauma- focused therapist or another professional.

 How Do I Support My Child After A Traumatic Experience?

The support you provide will look different across age ranges and should be developmentally appropriate. Regardless of age, it is important to:

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Provide structure and daily routines
Give extra attention to support your child’s emotional and physical safety
Provide safety plans (what to do in an emergency, who to talk to, where to go, etc.)
Listen to your child if he or she wants to talk, but do not force the child to talk about a traumatic experience when he or she is not ready.
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Consistently demonstrate and tell your child that you are there to talk.

Check out the additional resources for more tips on talking to children about trauma.

Self-Care

As they say on airplanes, you must first secure your own oxygen mask before helping your child put on theirs. The same goes for coping with a traumatic event: before you can be there for your child, you must be there for yourself. Not only will this help you to remain calm and stable while helping your child cope and work to understand the traumatic event, it will also help you become a model of self-care for your child.

This is important to remember because although the traumatic event may have happened to your child, you have been impacted as well. Additionally, if you, as a caregiver, have had traumatic or difficult experiences in your past, your child’s experience may trigger your own reactions. It is important to be aware of your own reactions, how they impact your child, and when it is time to seek help from a professional.

Finding Help

To find a therapist or other resources for child trauma in your area, check out the NCTSN’s Get Help Now webpageTo learn more about how trauma may impact you as a caregiver and how you can respond to and manage your own experience, check out the links in the Additional Resources drop down menu.

Additional Resources

NCTSN – Resources for Parents and Caregivers

http://www.nctsn.org/resources/audiences/parents-caregivers

Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event

http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/KEN01-0093R/KEN01-0093R.pdf

Rise Magazine

http://www.risemagazine.org/rise-magazine/

DCF Connecticut – Talking with children and adolescents after a traumatic event

http://www.ct.gov/dcf/cwp/view.asp?a=4106&Q=480768

Child Mind Institute – Talking to Kids about Traumatic Experiences

http://www.childmind.org/en/posts/articles/2010-10-7-talking-kids-about-traumatic-experience

Talking to Children and Young People About Trauma

http://earlytraumagrief.anu.edu.au/files/Talking%20to%20children%20and%20young%20people%20about%20trauma.pdf

Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event

http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/KEN01-0093R/KEN01-0093R.pdf

Psychology Today

www.psychologytoday.com

After the Injury – What Does Your Child Need?

https://www.aftertheinjury.org/what-does-your-child-need

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