Part 1 of this series covers the common symptoms/behavior children experience following a traumatic event. Knowing what to look for is important, and so is knowing what to do when parents and caregivers are faced with handling behavior and symptoms that do not respond to typical parenting approaches. Below are 6 key ways that parents and caregivers can help their children through difficult trauma-related symptoms and behaviors.
1. Take a deep breath.
Being more calm and composed will help your child cool down sooner. Children with trauma-related symptoms and behaviors usually exhibit them when they have been “triggered” (or reminded) of their trauma, starting a chain reaction in their mind and body that we call the “fight or flight” response. When this response occurs their actions are more controlled by fear than logic and reasoning. The quickest and most effective way to get them out of the fight or flight response is to cool down their anxiety. Children learn how to cool down by example. Keeping your cool models for your child that they can also cool down.
2. Give your child a positive physical outlet.
Once the fight or flight response is on, it produces a significant amount of energy (thanks to a massive dump of cortisol in their body). If children remain still, the energy will have no place to go and the difficult symptoms and behavior will persist. When symptoms arise do something physically active with your child that is fun and positive (running, outdoor games like hopscotch, jumping on a trampoline, swinging, Wii sports, etc.). It will help expel the energy and it provides positive bonding time (which a traumatized child needs in abundance). Provide daily exercise to help reduce the flight or fight response from becoming as intense.
3. Have a weekly schedule and build in bonding time.
Children who have been traumatized often feel that their world has become unpredictable and scary. One of the most beneficial tools for children is creating a sense of predictability through schedules (with plenty of built-in free time), and through strengthening the bond between child and parent/caregiver. Parents and caregivers are the anchor and compass in a child’s life, and trauma can cause some distance in this relationship (as well as in other relationships). Short and intensive bonding activities can help repair the damage trauma caused to relationships. Activities that focus on the child in short spurts (5-15 minutes) every day can accomplish a great deal (check out these activities: family bonding activities, 150+ bonding activities).
4. Don’t ask “why?”
Asking children to reason through and rationalize their actions and symptoms is difficult for any child. The part of our brain that helps us reason through our actions as adults is not fully formed until our early 20’s. Children who are traumatized have even less of an understanding of their behavior and actions when they are triggered. When faced with difficult behavior or symptoms, adults naturally want to ask “why?”, however, this question can often escalate situations. Instead focus on using these three steps: cool down, calm down, and follow through.
5. Cool down, calm down, follow through.
Cooling down using physical exercise is effective, though some children cool down best when they can hide. When children have cooled down (identified by relaxed bodies) they then need time to calm down (having relaxed minds). This can take from 90 minutes to a few hours after they have cooled down, and sometimes can be weeks long. Don’t rush this process by discussing the behavior before they have calmed down, or it may restart the difficult behavior or symptoms. After they are calmed down, then follow through with a conversation about what to do differently next time. Make suggestions or have the child identify what would be more helpful ways to cope with difficult situations that trigger difficult behavior and symptoms.
6. Remember, every behavior meets a need.
If your child is having difficult behavior or symptoms it is their way of communicating to you that they have a need that isn’t being met. During follow-through conversations children will be more able to use words to express those needs (often by explaining how to get that need met), but in the heat of the moment their behavior is their primary way to express themselves and they often don’t have the capacity to do so with words. Reframing a child’s behavior as communication can help you stay calm and for your child to cool down sooner.
Parents and caregivers are powerful people in the lives of children, and are the first source in helping children learn how to cool down, connect, find stability, express their needs, and find more positive ways to handle triggers.
If you have tried all these steps and still have continued concerns (or unsure how to implement them), child therapy can help find alternative ways to help relieve trauma-related behavior and symptoms.
Live in the Vancouver/Portland area and want to discuss your child’s needs? Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can set up a free 30-minute phone consultation.