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Ways to Help Your Child and Help Yourself At the Same Time

William Steele, M.S.W., Psy.D.


Trauma is like no other experience. It brings out reactions you may have never seen before, nor your child has ever experienced.

Your child may not have control over his behavior because the terror he experienced has left him feeling out of control. It may be that terror which is driving his behaviors.

As long as a childs behavior is not hurting others or himself, it is okay.

If your childs behavior is upsetting to you, it is best to talk with a trauma specialist before reacting because these behaviors need special intervention.

Be Patient:

Trauma destroys a childs sense of safety and security. They will need time to feel safe again and to feel you can protect them.

As a parent of a traumatized child, it will be very difficult to see your child return to behaviors he engaged in years earlier, to see them act entirely different than the child you knew them to be before their trauma. They need you to be patient.

Whatever behaviors they turn to after their trauma, no matter how strange or frightening they are for you, it is your childs attempt to feel powerful and safe again. Be patient. Do not push them to change or to stop until you have consulted a trauma specialist

Be Nurturing:

Whatever the age, any trauma needs to be followed by a lot of nurturing.

Let your child eat what they want, follow you around or even withdraw for a while. Your child may want to be taken care of, to have fewer demands.

Spend more time with your child the first several weeks.

Keep It Simple:

A terrorized child, adolescent, or adult will find it difficult to concentrate and remember even the simplest of things.

A terrorized individual will be forgetful. He can even forget what he was doing or talking about five minutes earlier.

You need to simplify everything for several weeks. Do not expect more. Do not introduce new challenges. This is a time to protect your child from stress. It really needs to be an, all the cookies and milk I want, time for traumatized children.


  • Reinforce that you understand that his reactions are not unusual following his experience.

  • Learn what trauma reactions can be expected and let your child know what he may yet experience.

  • Be more nurturing and comforting. Respond to your childs basic needs. Provide him/her with rest, comfort, food, and opportunities to play.

  • Talk openly with your child about what happened.

  • Reinforce with your child that you will protect him/her.

  • Help your child to share his/her feelings in your supportive presence, and acknowledge his/her feelings. Do not tell your child how he/she should or should not feel. Healing takes time - do not hurry your childs reactions along with comments such as, Its time to get over it.

  • Understand that physical reactions such as headaches, fatigue, etc. can be normal responses to fear and a childs attempts to avoid thoughts of the crisis.

  • Provide labels, especially for younger children, for the feelings they are experiencing, such as sad, afraid, angry, etc.

  • Encourage your child to let you know when he/she is thinking about the crisis or when new reactions occur.

  • Give your child special support by keeping things fairly structured. Adjust for your childs fears, especially at bedtime.

  • Help to re-establish a sense of safety for your child. Let your child know where you are going and when you will be back. If you are gone for several hours, call and let hem/her know that you are all right.

  • Reassure your child that his/her feelings may not be the same as those of siblings or friends, and that those feelings are normal.

  • Be patient with difficulties in concentration, completing school work, etc. It is not unusual for a childs school performance to decline temporarily.

  • Recognize that regressive behavior such as nail biting and thumb sucking, as well as acting-out behaviors are normal reactions and should be discussed rather than punished.

  • Limit tasks and keep them simple.

  • If the crisis involves a death, help your child to recall positive memories of the victim.

  • Share your own similar experiences, giving the message that you survived and that he/she can too.

Help your child to understand that angry, defiant, aggressive behaviors, staying away from home, or taking unnecessary risks are ways to avoid feeling the pain, hurt, and fear that he/she is experiencing.

If shame is tied to a physical reaction that your child experienced during the crisis (such as wetting his/her pants, vomiting, crying, etc.) assure your child that unlike television portrayals, many people faced with a crisis will lose control over their bodies.

If your child expresses that he/she is not afraid of anything anymore (Nothing scares me...), be more protective of your youngster, as he/she many not act safely in a potentially dangerous situation.

Help your child to understand the relationship between his.her feelings and the crisis and encourage your youngster to find safe ways to express his/her feelings (i.e. drawing pictures, writing, talking, exercise, etc.).

If changes in your child's behavior or personality concern you, seek the support of a mental health professional.

William Steele, M.S.W., Psy.D.: steele@tlcinst.org, founder of the The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children,

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