As a parent you may be wondering how to navigate your child through this distressing event with wisdom in how to reduce the impact of the trauma and avoid them becoming further traumatised.
In working out how to help your child recover from a critical incident experience, it is important to work out where they are coming from first.
Is this the first traumatic experience they have had?
If so then the recovery route looks quite different to if they have seen and and experienced other frightening events.
Have they known other losses or stresses in their life? Are they children who have survived other significant traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect or ongoing bullying?
If that is the case, sometimes the feelings and emotions they may have due to this critical incident can become muddled with other experiences where they felt terrified, powerless and overwhelmed, leading them to need restoration from all the traumatic experiences they have had.
We don't want to just manage the symptoms of distress or trauma but want to help facilitate trauma recovery and so its vital that the recovery plan starts with assessment of 'what is going on ? and what has gone on before?'
The Trauma Continuum is a theory created by Betsy de Thierry which helps work out how to help your child to recover from trauma. Here is a little video to help you understand that.
With under 5's the most important thing for them is how you are. If you show distress or fear or panic, then your child will often mirror that face and feeling. They naturally trust their primary attachment figures and so follow your reactions. You may see when a loud sound occurs, that the child will firstly look to the face of the adult and if they are relaxed, they will carry on playing, but if they are scared, the child will cry.
So in the context of your relationship, its best to use simple words about sad and bad things that happen and your role to try and keep them safe and how they can always tell you if they are worried about anything.
As you give them warmth and emotional connection in a comfy space, you can reassure them that there are so many kind and lovely people in the world and when things go wrong there are many helpers who come to help.
You can explore emotions they may be feeling such as worry, fear, anger or frustration that they couldn't finish playing because of the thing that happened. Help them name those emotions and validate their feelings.
They may like to play with their teddies or fire trucks or police cars or dolls to act out what happened and that is helpful and you can play with them and validate the words of fear and make sure there are helpers on the scene.
They may want to hear therapeutic stories from books that explore the themes to help them make sense of what they heard or saw. These kind of books are suggested below.
5-11 year olds
With primary school children they can hear things and get muddled about what really happened. They often need to hear facts, but said in a way that is not terrifying and without too much detail. The best way to do that is to use empathy- stand in their shoes and wonder what they need to know and what they are really frightened of?
Usually children of this age want to know that they and their loved ones will be able to stay safe and they need reassurance that you as the adult can keep everyone they love safe. This is not usually the time to discuss the limitations of what you can do, but to point out with confidence what you can do to provide safety.
It is best to be able to provide a safe space (somewhere they feel comfy, where people aren't going to interrupt or listen) where you can chat to them. It may be best to say that you have heard/ or seen what happened and that it made you feel sad and upset and wanted to help them express how they may have felt. They may need help choosing words that best seem to describe how they feel and felt and then these words need validating rather than debating. Our tone of voice and body posture needs to be warm and kind and gentle so they feel able to explore how they feel and then what worried them and what still worries them now.
Following on from an exploration of what they felt and how it made their body feel (tummy ache/ felt sick/ felt angry and hot/ wanted to cry/ felt frozen and couldn't speak etc)
They may want to draw, or use clay or plasticine to show how they feel. They may want to write a story of what happened and rip it up or you keep it. They may want to act it out. Let that happen and validate the story as they process the event. Eventually they naturally move onto different themes of play as they feel less distressed by what they saw or heard.
They may also find therapeutic story books helpful.
Try and have a nice drink with your child to create a safe space to chat.
11+ year olds
At this stage children may want to ask a lot of questions and work out how things could go wrong. They can have a big sense of powerlessness which leads to them wanting to stop such a thing happen again. They may also want to avoid talking about the incident because they are talking to friends and watching videos instead.
It's important that you try and help the child feel that you have time to talk or process what they may be feeling or thinking and that is your priority, regardless of how busy you look.
The child may be trying to research or read the news about the event and may get the wrong idea about what happened, so try and make sure that you regularly, gently and in a relaxed way, say that they can ask you any questions they may have. They may want to feel independent and may feel stupid about expressing any vulnerability or fear about the event.
Sometimes this age group prefer to chat whilst not looking at you, so it can be easier when driving the car and they are a passenger or whilst you are cooking or whilst watching TV together. This is an ideal time to gently say that they are welcome to ask any questions they want or to chat about what their friends are saying about the event.
Children of this age may want to write a letter to someone to try and make sure their voice is heard, or they may want to write a letter to a victim or make cakes for some of the helpers. This can help with their sense of powerlessness and helps them know they can bring hope and kindness when things seem so awful.
Despite how tall or strong they may be, or how confident they look, they may feel very scared on the inside and may look for help in the most surprising ways, to avoid feeling stupid or vulnerable. So always be ready to respond, and know that this is a sign of a very positive relationship with that child.
Triune Brain film
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A guide to helping children feel calm, connected and comfy.
Don't shame us
Books to help Children & Youth
Trauma is really strange
A terrible thing happened
When a child has experienced or seen a terrifying incident, it is normal that their reaction is shown in behaviour. They may:
Become more agitated, frustrated, quick tempered or irritated
Become more fragile, they may easily cry or be quiet or withdraw
Shout or scream or have emotional outbursts.
Struggle to sleep or eat due to feeling sick or having tummy aches
Show signs of distress with self harming or starving themselves
Become clingy with adults or friends
Be over reactive to small things
Regress in their behaviour and act younger than they are
Seem to not care and not need anyone
Be more lethargic or zoned out
Start to act like an animal
Be aggressive or violent or demonstrative with their anger or sadness
Express their needs for people, food, spaces, things that bring them comfort
Whatever they express, remember that behaviour is usually communication of some kind and your reaction is important. Be kind, gentle and create a space for them to expres what is really going on under the behaviour. If they look angry, they may actually be sad. If they look like they hate you, it could be because actually they are terrified you may die.
Further resources & support
To learn more about how Trauma can impact a child, and what can be done to help, then there are lots of Simple Guide books on the topic which explain more.
If you would like to see titles of therapeutic story books available to help your child explore how they feel then click here
If on reflection, you think your child might be at the Type 3 end of the continuum and you need professional support, then please do speak with the school/ GP that your child is connected to, and you could even show them this page to help explain what you need.