When It Happens To Your Child
I have written a lot on my blog about the trauma I have experienced. I have written about the ways trauma has affected my day to day life, and how it haunts my interpersonal relationships. I have written about the reasons why I stayed with my abuser despite the pain and embarrassment he caused me, and last week I finally wrote about why I left: my son.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network writes that
Young children who experience trauma are at particular risk because their rapidly developing brains are very vulnerable. Early childhood trauma has been associated with reduced size of the brain cortex. This area is responsible for many complex functions including memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thinking, language, and consciousness. These changes may affect IQ and the ability to regulate emotions, and the child may become more fearful and may not feel as safe or as protected.
This terrifies me because it makes me question whether it is my fault that my son cannot tell me his feelings, thoughts, fears, joys. Is it my fault he still wear diapers at age 9? Is it my fault that he is autistic, because I let his biological father be a part of his life, even for just those short few months?
I can’t undo what my son witnessed and experienced as an infant; all I can do is my very best to keep him safe now. Likewise, any parent can only do her best to keep her child safe. We cannot always protect our children from trauma. One of the scariest moments in a parent’s life is when she discoverers something traumatic has happened to her child; whether at school, in an accident, while with someone once trusted, or elsewhere; discovering your child has been traumatized is earthshattering.
It’s a nightmare question which not many of us do want to even ponder: “What if it happens to my child?” But the question needs to be asked, because no matter how protective you are, your child may still experience trauma, and if he does, the best way you can help is to be prepared. Betty’s Battleground is grateful to have the opportunity to publish this piece by marriage and family therapist Katherine “Katie Jo” Glaves about how to detect and help childhood trauma.
Katherine “Katie Jo” Glaves is joining us today to write a special guest post about children who’ve experienced trauma. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Mindful Therapy Group in Seattle, who specializes in working with children. She also operates out of her own private practice: Cedars Creative Therapy
When It Happens To Your Child
No one likes to think about trauma happening to children. The bad things in life shouldn’t happen to kids. But trauma does happen to kids. I’ve seen children with a variety of types of traumas over the years; from the death of a parent by suicide to child sexual abuse to domestic violence to severe bullying.
Adults may not know how to talk to children about these events or how to know when to get a trauma-exposed child professional help. This article will help parents identify trauma symptoms, find professional help for their child and talk about trauma treatment for children.
What Childhood Trauma Looks Like
Kids, when exposed to trauma, deal with it in different ways. It is not unusual for children, boys especially, to act out after experiencing trauma by harming others, running away, or getting into trouble.
They may act out their trauma with toys or other children. This is called ‘traumatic play’ and it is very common in children with trauma-exposure.
Other children turn inwards, becoming avoidant, having high anxiety, and withdrawing from the world that harmed them.
Nightmares, avoidance of reminders of trauma and sensitivity to sudden noises are also common symptoms.
The younger the child, the more likely that their symptoms will be noticed as behavioral problems. Sometimes traumatized children are mislabeled as having oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD).
Sometimes parents do not know about the trauma and they are puzzled by the changes in their child. When they find out about the trauma they may feel blindsided.
Other times, they know but feel helpless to give their child support. It can be especially hard if the parent was a victim of the trauma as well as the child, as in domestic violence. What’s more, sometimes parents have secondary trauma from hearing about their child’s trauma.
How Parenting A Traumatized Child Affects You
Parenting a child who has experienced trauma is extremely tough. Parents should seek help from a professional who works with children to help themself and their child address the trauma and process the event.
If the parent is struggling with their own thoughts and feelings about their child’s trauma, they may need individual therapy as well so they can process those feelings and be ready and able to support their child.
Parents need to be included in their child’s trauma treatment; parents should look for a therapist for their child who will include parents in the treatment.
Some of the most effective trauma therapy sessions I have had have been family sessions. Parents who don’t know about their child’s trauma can’t help their child. Parents who don’t know the skills their child is learning in therapy can’t help them use those skills.
As a therapist, I seek to include parents in therapy and will also meet with parents outside of the child’s session to talk about parenting a child who has experienced trauma. Parents need help to parent their trauma-exposed child; no child therapist should treat a child without parental involvement.
How Therapy Trauma Differs Between Children and Adults
Younger children and children who are less verbal by temperament might do best with a therapist who utilizes non-verbal therapies. I’m an art therapist and see art as a valuable way to help a child process what has happened to them.
Research also suggests that most traumatic memories are visual memories, not verbal memories. An art piece can show the therapist what the child saw, heard, and felt better than a child’s words.
Play therapy can do the same thing. Then the therapist can help the child find the words to express what happened to him or her and feelings about it.
When a child is engaging in traumatic play with a therapist, the therapist might put words to what feelings the child has about the event.
One time a child was re-enacting a scene of domestic violence for me with my toy animals and I began to ‘speak’ as a character that was watching the scene, saying “Oh no, I’m scared, I don’t like this.”
The child got very quiet. That child had witnessed D.V. and I was giving her words to express her feeling about what she saw. After several sessions of this sort of play and of client making art about the trauma, the child was able to talk about her trauma in an age-appropriate manner and talk about feelings she had while watching the event.
Once you have found a child therapist who will involve you and can utilize art or play, what next? What does trauma treatment look like for a child?
Generally speaking, the first stage of trauma treatment for children is the same as it is for adults: building a healthy therapeutic relationship. That means that your child needs to feel comfortable with the therapist.
Children, like adults, vary quite a bit in how long this takes them. Some children feel comfortable with the therapist quickly and others less quickly. At this stage, therapists will also provide information to you and your child about trauma and its effects.
One way I do this is through books. I often read (affiliate link) A Terrible Thing Happened, a book about a raccoon named Sherman who saw a terrible thing
The book covers trauma symptoms and talks about how Sherman gets better (spoiler: it is by seeing a therapist)! I also might play a game about emotions with a child and talk about and draw a picture about where you feel those emotions in your body. All of this lays the groundwork for teaching healthy coping skills.
Coping skills are how everyone deals with hard things. Coping skills can include healthy skills, such as reading a book to calm down, taking deep breathes or thinking a new thought about a situation.
Coping skills can be unhealthy as well. Self-harm, hitting others, or avoiding things are examples. Kids need healthy coping skills so they can deal with the tough emotions that come up when they start talking about their trauma.
I usually have kids practice skills with me. Sometimes we’ll read a book about a kid using a coping skill and then practice using that skill ourselves. I want kids to have the ability to manage their own emotions before we approach the trauma itself.
I also seek to give kids ways of thinking about their thoughts, feelings, and actions. I expect that children will need to appraise what they did during the trauma (or didn’t do), as well as what they think and feel about the trauma.
I often have kids practice by talking about what they thought, how they felt and what they did during other situations during the week. I want to build up the ability to distinguish between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
We will often draw where we feel certain emotions in our bodies, act out what we did, and say out loud our thoughts. Parents will be encouraged to practice these skills with their child during the week.
Once a child is comfortable with the therapist, has coping skills, and has the ability to distinguish between thoughts, feelings, and actions, then it is time to communicate about the trauma.
This can be done through play and art. I like to ask the child to draw a picture or tell me about the trauma one piece at a time.
Sometimes kids want to rush and get it all out. In that case, I write down what they told me and separate it out by sentence. Then I have the child illustrate each sentence and get more information from that picture. For each sentence, I will ask more questions, trying to help the child identify thoughts, feelings and actions at each stage of the trauma.
I want the child to be exposed to the trauma; that is, they have to face what scares them. Parents need to be part of this. For older (10+) kids I will do the narrative without the parents, then bring the parents in after the narrative is complete and have the child read or show the narrative to them.
For younger kids, the parents are usually there throughout the entire process, unless the parents themselves cannot handle it.
Children usually feel much better after talking through their narrative. Talking through the narrative, getting information, and confronting those uncomfortable feelings is very cleansing for kids.
Often kids have felt as if the trauma is their fault; doing it in a narrative is a chance to learn it is not. Some kids may want to share their narrative with others outside their family. If it is appropriate to do so, then let them.
I had a client want to mail a copy of his narrative to the governor; his trauma was related to legal matters and he wanted to let someone in power know what had happened to him. I’ve had other clients share their narrative with a favorite teacher. This sharing of the story is a way for kids to own their own story and reclaim what happened to them.
Trauma treatment is never easy; often kids have worse behaviors when they are in the middle of doing their trauma narrative than they did before beginning it.
However, this is part of the process. Children need to process their trauma experiences. They need to do so in a safe place, with the help of parents and a therapist. It is ideal to do trauma treatment as soon as symptoms are noticed, as behaviors and unhealthy coping skills are less ingrained. I encourage parents to seek help for their children early on, when they first notice concerning behaviors.
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Til next time.
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