Many of us struggle to make sense of events such as shootings, tragedies, and abuse. Family situations and other everyday circumstances shape us. Feelings of shock, disbelief, sadness, anger, terror, and numbness surface. Everyone deals with traumatic events differently. “I cried all day and could not sleep the night after.” “I had terrible dreams.” “My body feels sick.” How does trauma make you feel? Most of us remember the exact place we stood on the morning of the 9/11 attacks. My son was only two and I remember thinking about his future. Thankfully, he was too young to remember but many children faced difficult feelings that they might not have known how to process. As a parent, teacher, or therapist it’s difficult to know what and how much to discuss with your children. Our kids look to us to help them to feel safe and secure. I struggle with the same issues.
As a trauma-informed occupational therapist, I’m happy to provide 5 tips to help you.
Here are some ‘Out of the POCKET’ Tips for dealing with trauma in children.
1 If your child craves it, provide a weighted blanket, stuffed animal, or calming sensory input such as music or a sensory space. Remember that generally, deep pressure is calming to the proprioceptive and tactile systems. If you don’t already have one, this is a wonderful time to make a calming sensory corner or special space for children (and adults) to go when they feel overwhelmed and upset.
2 Help children to know that you care and are listening to them. Reassure them that you will do what you can to keep them safe. Plan a special activity such as a game, picnic outside, trip to a favorite place, or activity such as fishing. Try to provide solitude and comfort.
3 Start a discussion when your child is listening. Good times to do this include car rides, after reading a book, and mealtimes. Remain calm and make sure to listen to your child and repeat his/her words back to let them know you’ve heard them. Avoid arguing with your child, but if you disagree, let them know it’s fine to have an opinion. Do not talk about worst-case scenarios or graphic details.
4 Remember that children learn through play. Provide pretend play opportunities for children so that they can show sadness and frustration without verbalizing it. Many children with special needs struggle to discuss emotions and feelings. To help your child to work through emotions, play pretend vet, nurse, or doctor.
5 Provide outlets for children such as a journal, feelings charts, coloring book, or social stories. Here are helpful resources: National Child Traumatic Stress Network; and Infographic from National Association of School Psychologists. BONUS: Here are some physical manifestations of stress and/or trauma. Remember that behavior IS communication. Always look for a reason for a child’s behavior instead of punishing or taking away calming or play activities.
- Change in eating/appetite
- Increase in sensory-seeking input such as crashing, spinning, hugging, and hand/body movements
- Sleep difficulties
- Recurring and persistent discussions and fears about the possibility of another disaster
- Re-experiencing the event through nightmares, recollections, or play
- Avoiding discussion and becoming upset when caregivers attempt to talk about the event.