The Traumatized Child

  • Scotty is five years old, and lost his parents in a car crash three months ago.

“He’s young,” one of his aunts remarked after the funeral. “He’ll bounce back.”

  • Maria was seven when her family’s home was flooded and destroyed, and they were stranded on the highway after hurricane Katrina, waiting for rescue.

“We’ll rebuild,” everyone around her kept saying. “At least we have our lives.”

  • Luke and Landon are four-year-old twins who were rescued from their burning bedroom by their father during a house fire.

“You’re safe now,” their parents told them. “Try not to think about it.”

  •  Eleven-year-old Jill was raped on her way home from school. 

“At least she identified her attacker,” her parents and the authorities said. “He’ll be put away and she can get on with her life.”

Childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence and happiness. The parents and other adults in their lives do their best to shield them from pain and the harsh realities of the world.

When a trauma happens to a child, like a sudden loss or abrupt change in their environment, our first instinct is to comfort the child and try to make the hurt go away. Sometimes we don’t know what to say or do, and resort to the phrases we say again and again to adults who have lost. But the truth is, children find it just as difficult as adults to cope with trauma, grief, and loss, and they can experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder just like adults.

Yes, children cope with trauma in different ways. When a parent is lost, one child may cry all the time or have nightmares, while another will barely speak of it and go about playing as if nothing is wrong. Yet, both children are suffering inside.

When a child sees, hears, or experiences something traumatic, it stays with them. The trauma may be expressed in a number of ways:

  • Trouble with school work.
  • Lack of concentration.
  • Bad dreams.
  • Bed wetting.
  • Angry outbursts.
  •  Unusual behavior.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Denial.
  • Hitting oneself or someone else.
  • Withdraws.
  • Fear.
  • Hyper-vigilance.
  • Confusion.
  • Separation anxiety.
  • Guilt.
  • Acting out the trauma with art, toys, and storytelling.
  • Aches and pains.
  • Regression.
  • Reckless behavior.
  •  Mood swings and depression.

Children lack the vocabulary to tell those around them that they feel fear, anger, helplessness, insecurity, guilt, etc.

When we recognize that we can reach out to the big hurts of little hearts, we start the traumatized child on the road to healing and recovery.

If we help them learn how to cope with tragedy when they are young, it can help them handle pain throughout the rest of their lives.

How we deal with a traumatized child often depends on several factors:

  • The circumstance of the trauma–(Death of a parent, sibling? Loss of a home or family pet? A serious accident to themselves or someone they love? War, terrorism? An act of nature, earthquake, hurricane? Divorce, abuse, incarceration of a parent?)
  • Age of the child.
  • Available support systems such as family, friends, teachers, counselors, and clergy.

Here are 4 things to remember when responding to a child in turmoil:

1. Safety: All children want to feel safe above all things. They look to adults around them for protection. When trauma happens, safety and trust are compromised, and these children may feel like they will never be safe again, and can trust nothing in the world. They live in a constant state of fear that something bad will happen to them or the ones they love.

It is the job of the adults to constantly reassure the child that they are loved and cared for, and that everything will be done to protect them. Let the child know they can talk about the trauma any time they want, even if it’s painful for you and you’ve heard it many times. Encourage them to talk. Tell them that whatever they are feeling is okay and normal, and that everyone grieves over loss in their own way. Hold them when they cry. Above all, listen. A child will feel much more secure and confident if they know they have someone who will listen to them as well as talk to them.

2. Keep Routines: Routines and knowing what to expect makes any child feel more safe and secure. It will especially mean something to the traumatized child. Routines will help restore order to their chaotic life and emotions. This can include doing things at the same time every day—from waking up, to brushing teeth, to having meals, doing homework, or having a bedtime story. If the child has been unaccustomed to a routine, now would be the perfect time to start one.

3. Be The Example: All children look to adults to model behavior. The traumatized child, too, will look to adults to learn how to act, what to say, how to feel. Don’t hide your tears if you find yourself crying in front of them, but don’t act as if the trauma will damage the child beyond repair. All children should feel that their belief in hope, goodness, and the future can be restored.

4. Encourage Resiliency: Give utmost attention to the traumatized child, but don’t let the child linger in pain and bereavement forever. Encourage the child to return to school, play, friends, routines, laughter, and fun. In time, and in their own time, they will. However, if you see that the child appears to be stuck in trauma or can’t seem to rebound with time, consider taking the child to a professional, and let the child know that seeking help is normal and the right thing to do.

Grief and pain are part of life—even a child’s life sometimes—but sometimes it takes a little extra effort to help a child move through the dark tunnel of trauma to the light on the other side.

by Tammy Ruggles