How to help a child who is dealing with trauma

We all want to protect our kids from scary situations, but sometimes there’s no way to avoid an emergency. Here’s how to help kids deal in the aftermath of trauma.

parents talking to their kids after a trauma
Photo: iStockphoto

Kayla Stephenson knew her four-year-old son, Jake, and two-year-old daughter, Marley, saw the wall of flames. And as she made her out of Fort McMurray, Alta., she saw it, too. “The fire was to the right of us. We all looked out the window and saw the black smoke of our community going up in flames,” says Stephenson. “Every now and then a huge flame would gush toward us. But we were in gridlocked traffic because the police were evacuating everybody and we couldn’t move.”

Eventually, Stephenson and her kids did manage to get out of the city, and they drove 434 kilometres south to Stephenson’s mother’s house in Edmonton. By then, they’d found out that not only had their community burned down, but their house had, too. Jake and Marley’s dad, Mark, a firefighter, had been there to see the house being swallowed by the fire.

We like to think we can protect our kids from anything, but some situations are simply out of our control. House fires, car accidents or disasters happen, and suddenly everything is thrown upside down.

Whether your child is young and not speaking yet or older and verbal, traumatic events leave mental marks. “They have a profound effect on young kids—especially around their feelings of safety and security,” says Carla Fry, a Vancouver-based registered psychologist. Even if children can’t comprehend what has happened, they feel that their environment has become unstable. “And that causes them to feel less secure,” she adds.

That shift can be expressed in any number of changes in a child’s behaviour. Younger children might regress by picking up that long-lost thumb-sucking habit or suddenly wetting themselves again. Older kids might experience nightmares or blame themselves for what happened. “They may think they caused it—maybe they didn’t handle the crisis the way they were taught at school,” says Lisa Ferrari, a Vancouver-based psychologist.

Just like adults, kids need time to readjust when they’re dealing with trauma. There are some things you can do in the meantime though to help them work through their fears and confusion.

Let them talk
“Don’t skirt around the actual event or their desire to talk about it,” says Ferrari, whether it comes out via things they say, their imaginative play or pictures they draw. “Retelling their experience is the most effective way for them to process the events so they can better cope with them.”

Participate
Engage in their play or conversation. “Join in their world, make sure there’s no judgment and help them find solutions in that drawing or play,” says Fry. For instance, if they’re drawing a fire, ask if you can draw something that may help put out the fire.

Have them lead
Don’t force them into talking about it when they’re not ready. “However, if they go for weeks and weeks and only want to talk about it right before bed and it always leads to nightmares, then try to encourage them to talk at another time of day,” says Fry.

Identify feelings
If nightmares or regressive behaviours occur, don’t judge. Instead, see if they can describe what they are experiencing with a “feeling word” (for example, “sad” or “scared”), or point to a face chart that illustrates different emotions to help them articulate what’s going on inside. “Knowing how they actually feel and sharing that with you could calm them simply by doing so,” says Fry.

Talk safety
“Talk about concrete things to re-establish that feeling that there’s control,” says Fry. Explain that you’re putting on seat belts to stay safe in the car, or checking smoke detectors to ensure your home is protected from fire. But avoid over-promising—you can’t guarantee that an emergency will never happen again.

Seek help
“If, after four weeks, the nightmares or clingy behaviours or outbursts continue, some outside help may be needed,” Ferrari says. Seeing a child psychologist is also a good idea if you notice changes in your child’s sleep or eating habits, or if your kid doesn’t want to go back to school.

As for Jake, these days he may revisit the fire by bringing up the fact that his new Transformers toy looks like the one he had in his old house, or say that he’s scared when it’s windy out, like it was the day of the fire. “I just encourage him to just talk,” says Stephenson. “I don’t need to have the answers and I don’t need to agree or disagree. I’m just there to listen and validate his feelings.”

Read more:
6 ways to calm your anxious child
How to talk about mental health with your kids
How to talk to kids about racism: An age-by-age guide

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