Children are exposed to traumatic experiences directly or indirectly every day. The recent armed hold up at a children’s party at the Sandton Fire Station brought this into sharp focus, but there are many other ways that children can be traumatised that can impact on their ability to cope with everyday life.
Examples of childhood trauma
Any experience that makes a child feel unsafe or unprotected that they cannot move on from could be considered to be trauma (the opposite would be the transient stress and anxiety related to writing exams). These can be once-off, high-impact events such as a car accident, or can be ongoing and repetitive such as child abuse. Here are just a few common examples of events that can traumatise children:
Direct trauma (that happens to a child’s physical being)
- Illness or surgery
- Loss of a parent or separation from loved ones
- Natural disasters
- Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
- Neglect, loss or abandonment
- Domestic or community violence
- Fleeing from home as a refugee
- Inappropriate movies and television
- When a child’s friend goes through a trauma (second-hand trauma – it could happen to me thinking)
Trauma breaks a child’s trust in life
Trauma in childhood impacts on the relationship a child has between fear and trust. Trust in people, and trust in the process of life. Life has let them down. For this reason alone it is essential that childhood trauma be dealt with properly and sensitively to enable a child to re-engage fully with life.
Every person reacts to trauma differently. What is traumatic for one child may not be traumatic for another. Some can cope with a traumatic experience and move on quickly while others can’t. Different personalities have different coping skills. As parents we also need to bear in mind that children often see and experience trauma very differently to adults.
It is rare that someone can deal with trauma by themselves. A child often requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Trauma can be resolved quickly or may require a lot of time to unravel, depending on many influencing factors. The objective of the healing journey to access the trauma that is stored or trapped in the mind, body and emotions, to give it a voice, to empower the child to process it and to integrate and understand the memories within the larger context of their life.
Therapy should empower the patient who is recovering from having their power taken away through abuse or violation. The goal is to replace fear with trust by helping a child to reformulate their beliefs and perceptions, and to restore a sense of control and stability. This is a process that takes time.
Also bear in mind that when your child experiences a trauma, it can uncover past wounds from your own traumatic experiences. You need to help your child deal with their trauma by dealing with your own too.
Symptoms of childhood trauma
Depending on the age and stage of a child the symptoms can vary. Here are some of the common ones:
- Regression – emotional and behavioural
- Clingyness/separation anxiety
- Mistrustful of others
- Isolation or withdrawal
- Outburst of emotion or anger, or tantrums that do not stop
- Inability to be soothed or comforted
- Sleep disturbances – nightmares, inability to fall asleep due to fear etc.
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Over controlling or over-reacts
- Concentration issues/drop in academic performance
- Panic attacks
- Indulges in risky behaviours – sex, drugs, alcohol, self-harm
Dealing with trauma
- Get support for all parties. The entire family needs counselling and support not just the victim. There are many kinds of support and therapies available from trauma counselling with a therapist or social worker to play therapists, doctors, psychotherapists, grief counselors, homeopaths, body stress release practitioners, EMDR therapy, the DeMartini quantum collapse method and so much more. Trauma affects a child on every level of their being – not just their head or their body. Every part of them needs to be healed and counselling may be required again at different stages of their life as memories surface.
- Handle their feelings of guilt. Many children feel that they are to blame in some way for making this bad thing happen to them or to the family. Ensure that feelings of blame are nipped in the bud quickly as they can be very destructive and hamper healing.
- Acknowledge the traumatic event in words and don’t hide it from the child. Acknowledge their pain and fear and tell them you will do everything you can to help them get to the other side of their fear.
- Take their concerns seriously and listen without judgement and criticism.
- Answer their questions in words they understand.
- Return to routines and normal activities as soon as possible.
- Get the balance right between distracting them from their fears and thoughts about what happened to them and helping them deal with their trauma.
- Let teachers/the school know what happened so that they can support the child and to ensure that they don’t misread your child’s emotions or behaviour at this time.
- Create a loving, safe, consistent environment.
Listen to my interview about childhood trauma with Redi Tlhabi on Radio 702/Cape Talk