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Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Experiences

Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Experiences

“That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.” — Khaled Hosseini

The thing about childhood trauma is that it follows people into adulthood if unrecognized and unaddressed. According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), events that can potentially cause trauma include neglect, community violence, a serious accident, physical or sexual assault, and losing a loved one. 

How does trauma affect children and what are some of the signs and symptoms to look out for? More importantly, how do you help a child heal from trauma — or even yourself as an adult who experienced it? Keep reading as we explore this topic in detail. 

How Trauma Affects Children

When kids witness or experience a traumatic event, they create this belief that the world is an unsafe place to live in, causing them to think and behave differently. One effect is the development of cognitive distortions where a child grows up interpreting events in a negatively biased way. Some of these thought patterns include all-or-nothing thinking, disqualifying the positive, and jumping to conclusions. You may have even noticed yourself using these distortions from time to time. 

Did you know that trauma can affect a child’s brain? Growing up in an environment where there is constant abuse and neglect increases their vulnerability to the following:

  • Delayed or poor language skills
  • Stunted growth of the hippocampus – an area of the brain that’s responsible for storing memories
  • Poor attention 
  • Weak executive functions – planning, getting started on a task or activity, working on their goals, and controlling their impulses

Moreover, adults with a history of childhood trauma may develop serious health problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease due to being chronically stressed out. Stress is also associated with behaviors that harm their health in the long run — for example, consuming too much sugar and staying sedentary, which increases the risk of obesity

Watch out for these signs and symptoms of trauma in kids:

  • Physical symptoms, such as stomach aches and headaches
  • Easily triggered by people, things, places, sounds, and sensations that remind them of the traumatic experience
  • Showing a lack of enjoyment in activities that they used to like
  • Frequently demanding attention through crying a lot
  • Anger or temper issues
  • Refusing to go to school if the traumatic event happened in school 

How Caregivers Can Help Children Heal from Traumatic Events

As parents, healthcare providers, or individuals providing for the needs of a child, we play a role in helping them cope in a healthy way. There are many treatment options available for childhood trauma, and one of them is trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT).

What makes trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy great is that it includes non-offending parents and caregivers in the picture. It teaches them positive parenting skills and how to communicate with their child. Because let’s face it: We may not always figure out the best way to approach them and get them to open up about their trauma. 

Additionally, you can take advantage of various tools, including trauma worksheets. These trauma worksheets are essential for sharing their trauma story, identifying their trauma triggers, and exploring coping skills (such as grounding and mindful distraction) that will help them manage trauma symptoms. These worksheets can be printed or answered directly on a device. 

Kids with special needs will require a different kind of help. In other words, you may need to adjust your conversational style — e.g., using visual aids, such as pictures and videos. For these children, it’s important to make your content more relatable to them. 

How to Overcome Childhood Trauma as an Adult

Childhood trauma manifests in adults in various ways. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, coined the term “repetition compulsion,” which happens when trauma victims put themselves in situations similar to their past trauma. 

For example, growing up with a narcissistic parent who makes you feel undermined, manipulated, rejected, and loved conditionally can put you at risk for being in a relationship with narcissists. This would look like giving in to the demands and expectations of a narcissistic friend — but when you’re going through a hard time yourself, they aren’t truly there for you. 

Acknowledging your childhood trauma is the first step to healing. It’s important to remind yourself that you are not responsible for the trauma and that it is not your fault. Self-blame will only prevent you from moving forward. 

Finding things to be thankful for can also be very beneficial for your recovery. While a gratitude practice does not change your past, it helps you view it differently. For example, reflecting on the lessons you’ve learned from the experience instead of dwelling on the painful emotions. 

Lastly, don’t take for granted simple self-care habits, such as eating healthily, getting quality sleep at night, and having a regular exercise routine. 

Conclusion 

Getting over a painful childhood experience takes work. Children definitely require professional help and support from a non-offending adult. As you’ve learned in this article, trauma-focused CBT is one of the many therapies that help improve trauma symptoms in children. 

If you’re an adult dealing with unresolved childhood trauma, know that it’s never too late to start a journey of recovery. No matter the trauma you were subjected to as a child, help is always available. 

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