On May 5th, 2011, I was driving with my children from our home in Anaheim Hills to my teenage son’s Orange County Tutor Doctor appointment when, right after I merged onto the freeway, another driver swerved into our lane and my whole world stopped. I woke up in the hospital two days later, badly banged up and severely confused, in a panic whose source I could not identify until a nurse told me in reassuring tones that, thanks to their properly outfitted and installed car seats, my kids were fine. Those car seats and my car’s airbags saved our lives.
The World English Dictionary defines trauma as “a powerful shock that may have long-lasting effects” or “any bodily injury or wound.” Trauma can come in many different forms: as a result of a natural disaster; sexual, physical, or emotional abuse; a car wreck, or from many other types of situations. How it impacts the child will depend on the age of the child, the severity of the situation, and whether or not the trauma is reoccurring.
Helping Kids Cope with Trauma
- Reassure the child. Let them know repeatedly that they are safe and that everything will be all right.
- Spend time with the child. Give them the extra love and attention they may need, keeping in mind that hugs can give an important gift of healing.
- Be extra-forgiving of immaturity and even expect some regression. Don’t expect the child to handle the situation “as an adult.”
- Stick to a routine schedule, but remember to allow room for fun.
- Give them an opportunity to share their feelings. Listen to them and respond with reassuring, simple answers.
- Encourage creativity. Many children will express their feelings about the trauma by acting the scenario out with toys or by drawing pictures.
- Take out time to cope with your own feelings about the trauma. Release this stress and tension, if possible, before speaking with your child.
- Pay attention to any media the child is exposed to. News coverage of a disaster or images related to a traumatic experience can negatively affect a child.
- Provide them with opportunities to help others. This gives the child a feeling that they are doing something about the experience and also relieves tension.
- If necessary, seek trauma therapy or special trauma treatment for the child.
Responses to Trauma
Children cope with trauma in a variety of different ways. The following are common reactions each age group may have to trauma.
Babies/Children Younger than 2 Years of Age
- Eager to be held
- Unable to eat
- Delayed growth
- Responsive to specific sights, smells and sounds
- Frequent crying
- Disturbed sleep
Preschool Aged Children
- Unable to eat
- Thumb sucking
- Reenacting the situation with various objects
- Fear of the dark
- Does not enjoy previous activities, social avoidance
- Unable to sleep
- Attached to parent or guardian, fear of loss
Elementary School Aged Children
- Poor academic performance
- Sad feelings
- Attached to parent or guardian, clingy
- Talkative (especially of the traumatic event)
- Feelings of guilt
Adolescents/Children Out of Elementary School
- Engaging in reckless behavior
- Lack of an appetite
- Difficulty expressing themselves
- Avoidance of social interaction
- Overwhelming feelings
- Inability to concentrate, poor performance in school
- Thoughts of death
- Taking drugs, excessive drinking
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about dealing with a child victim of trauma is to offer your unconditional love and support. I am so grateful that, in the days following our car wreck, my sister was there for us to care for my kids while I recuperated. It is crucial that an adult be there to comfort and guide them as their still-developing brains lock in memories and build narratives to explain to themselves why their world has just been turned upside down.
An especially important key to helping a child to cope with trauma is to remember the principle illustrated on those in-flight emergency reference cards tucked into the seat in front of you aboard an aircraft: Before you help your child to don their oxygen mask, you must first don yours. The alternative is to risk loss of life or limb in both yourself and your child.
On a more positive note, remember that you are never alone. As alienating and frightening as a trauma can seem in the immediate (and even very long-term) aftermath, there are online support groups for every species of trauma imaginable. Take the time to find and join such groups because you deserve and need support more than you know. In the meantime, whatever you have been through, I wish you and yours a speedy path to full recovery.