By Vanessa O’Brien
From the moment that little bundle of joy is placed in their arms, most parents experience an unfathomable, primordial, desire to fiercely protect their child. They wrap them up warmly; they cradle them carefully; they would put their own life on the line to protect them from danger without even thinking about the consequences. It’s instinct.
But, as parents learn along the way, it’s not always possible to protect your child from experiencing hurt or trauma, often due to circumstances completely out of your control. Trauma is usually unexpected, and can leave parents at a complete loss for knowing how to help their child put their life together and ensure their future emotional health.
Trauma is an emotional shock that makes a lasting impression on one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It usually follows an emotionally painful, distressing or shocking experience, e.g. natural disasters, fire, acts of war, terrorist events, serious illness, death of a loved one, sexual, physical or verbal abuse and domestic violence. It’s also common for children to experience trauma through neglect, bullying, separation from a parent or an unstable/unsafe environment.
As Skylight counselling and training manager Linda Karlin describes, parents often feel helpless when it comes to knowing how to handle the situation, especially if they are traumatised themselves. “It is totally natural for parents to feel helpless when it comes to supporting their children through difficult times, no matter the cause. When parents are dealing with their own emotional struggles, it can be even more difficult to be “present” for their children, and to separate out their own issues from those of their children.
“Children are amazingly talented at picking up the mood and energy of those around them, especially of parents or caregivers. While I know it can be really hard to put our own stuff aside, I’d suggest that parents try to park their own stuff for a bit, and truly get into the space that their children are inhabiting.”
It’s crucial that parents identify their children’s needs, because trauma that is not dealt with can have long lasting effects. Although it might feel good – and even temporarily helpful – to lighten the mood, sweeping the situation under the carpet and hoping that your child will bounce back can send your child the message that what happened wasn’t really important or significant.
Psychologist Dr Bob Murray says that most researchers agree that early childhood traumas are the root of most long-term depression and anxiety, and many emotional and psychological illnesses. “Severe traumas can even alter the very chemistry and physiology of the brain.”
National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children (America) founder Dr William Steele says that one of the fundamental issues that children feel, but can’t necessarily identify, is a sense of loss of control over the events in their lives. For those who experienced the recent earthquakes in Canterbury, this is definitely the case says Linda.
“Many, if not most, of their normal routines may have been changed, which can be incredibly unsettling for children of all ages, but particularly young ones.”
Trauma in children often outworks itself in behaviour. It’s common for a traumatised child to experience a wide range of physical and emotional reactions, including:
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Anger, irritability and mood swings
- Guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Confusion and difficulty concentrating
- Anxiety and fear
- Withdrawing from others
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Being startled easily
- Racing heartbeat
- Muscle tension/aches and pains
It’s important for parents to remember that these are normal responses to an abnormal situation. Some children may return to old habits that you thought they had outgrown, such as sucking their thumb, temper tantrums or bedwetting. They may not want to sleep alone, their appetite may decrease, and they may exhibit headaches, stomach aches, or in extreme examples, vomiting. These responses generally lessen over time.
Dealing with trauma is like dealing with grief – there’s a sense of loss. Even if it’s not the loss of a loved one, it is a loss of a sense of security and wellbeing, and often for a child it’s their first indication that the world isn’t always a safe place.
Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in helping re-establish a sense of normality, security and safety. One of the best things that parents can do, says Linda, is to maintain a routine that’s as normal as possible.
“Re-establishing whatever routines existed pre the traumatic event will help children feel more secure, knowing that they can count on certain things.”
It’s also important to talk with your child, and help them to find a useful outworking of their emotions.
“It’s crucial to be present with the child as they share what is going on. Be as non-judgmental as possible, leaving your own emotions out of the picture,” says Linda.
Each child is different, and will mend on their own schedule. However, you and your child may need professional help from a trauma expert if symptoms persist, and especially if it inhibits your child’s ability to function normally, and to form and maintain healthy relationships.