How can we help children who have experienced trauma to feel safer?

Team TICS
February 28, 2024

Many adults who we have spoken to about what might have helped them as a child, have shared the following suggestions with us and we thought they might help you too.

Shift the Focus

The first is to shift our focus toward offering reassurance and instilling hope instead of repeatedly delving into the details of what transpired for the child. Remember that children often think in concrete terms, so exercise caution when using words like "sick" or "problems." It's essential to prevent children from worrying that similar incidents might occur if their loved ones fall ill, face difficulties, or encounter problems (Brodzinsky et al., 2022).

For instance, when children are aware of a tragedy, you can convey, "These are difficult times but we are trying to work together to find a solution…" (Vostanis, 2021). Or, in the face of something they may have witnessed or heard about in their local community, we could explore together with the child what actions are being taken to enhance everyone’s safety.

Managing Feelings

Times of significant change, feeling unsettled, witnessing or experiencing traumatic events understandably may bring up feelings of upset, worry, sadness, and anger for adults and children. This may happen long into the future or such feelings may be activated again around trigger points, sights, sounds, smells or sensations which may bring an individual psychologically back to a significant event (Rankin, 2021).

However, it is not a child’s job to take care of adult feelings. Instead of being burdened with adult feelings, children need us to help them understand and work through their own feelings. Listen when they talk, even if they say the same things over and over. Give reassuring answers to worried questions. Dealing with upsetting experiences is a process that can involve many feelings over a long time. Some children have difficulty talking about their feelings. Provide them with alternative ways to express their feelings. They can write a letter, draw a picture, plant a flower, or help someone else. Many children work out their feelings through play or stories (Holmes, 2020).

Avoid seeking to 'Fix'

Sometimes adults, particularly those of us who foster or have adopted, want so badly for children to feel better that they do not give them permission to be upset. This can be hard for us as adults to sit with but the space we provide children to be their feelings is fundamental.

Pressure to pretend to feel a certain way can become especially intense around family celebrations or events. If a child doesn’t want to go with usual activities, then find ways to engage the child while being supportive of her or his feelings. Instead of trying to force a child to participate, listen to the child, offer choices, and ask, “What would you like to do?”

Support for the Adults is Essential

The strain induced by a tragedy can also elevate the levels of irritability in adults (Bunting et al., 2019 and Asmussen et al., 2019). What might typically be minor irritations can potentially escalate into significant outbursts.

It is crucial to recognise that, particularly during these times, young individuals may become exceptionally sensitive to any signs of anger or distress from adults. It is essential to ensure that any expressions of anger appear to be controlled and not spiralling out of control (Su and Stone, 2020). Strive to resolve conflicts without resorting to aggression.

Bear in mind that children and teenagers are often learning more from observing your actions than from hearing your words. Demonstrate how to maintain composure and treat others with respect, even when you are experiencing frustration. Employ positive communication techniques to resolve disputes, seek assistance when facing challenges, and know when to disengage from potentially contentious situations.

If you need any help and support or just a general chat about ‘all things Trauma Informed’, please get in touch with Lyndsay, our Working Together Lead at lyndsay@ticservicesltd.com and our team will support you in your journey.

References

Asmussen, K., McBride, T., & Waddell, S. (2019). The potential of early intervention for preventing and reducing ACE-related trauma. Social Policy and Society, 18(3), 425-434.

Brodzinsky, D., Gunnar, M., & Palacios, J. (2022). Adoption and trauma: Risks, recovery, and the lived experience of adoption. Child abuse & neglect, 130, 105309.

Bunting, L., Montgomery, L., Mooney, S., MacDonald, M., Coulter, S., Hayes, D., & Davidson, G. (2019). Trauma informed child welfare systems—A rapid evidence review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(13), 2365.

Holmes, M. M. (2020). A terrible thing happened: A story for children who have witnessed violence or trauma. American Psychological Association.

Rankin, H. (2021). Re-building Trust with Traumatised Children & The House that Wouldn't Fall Down. Routledge.

Su, W. M., & Stone, L. (2020). Adult survivors of childhood trauma: Complex trauma, complex needs. Australian Journal of General Practice, 49(7), 423-430.

Vostanis, P. (2021). Helping children and young people who experience trauma: children of despair, children of hope. CRC Press.

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