Association for Training on Trauma and Attachment in Children

Helping Children Cope with Trauma

Terry Levy, Ph.D., B.C.F.E.
Director at Evergreen Psychotherapy Center/ Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Resilience means “bouncing back” from adversity. The primary factor in
resilience is having supportive and caring relationships that include trust, love, healthy role models, encouragement, and support. Nurturing relationships between parents and children have the power to heal trauma.
Exposure to trauma makes children feel frightened and helpless, and they need calm, caring and consistent caregivers. Remaining calm when they are agitated and teaching calming techniques reduces the anxiety and emotional arousal that affects their mood, behavior, sleep, and concentration.
Children must learn that adults are dependable, caring, patient and safe. Parents become a ” secure base” by being emotionally available, sensitive, responsive, and helpful. To do so means that parents have to be able to manage their own emotions and stress effectively. The following are tips for parents who want to help their children mend emotional wounds:

• Talk with your child: Communication builds trust and is a constructive
coping skill; find times they are likely to talk; start the conversation;
let them know you are interested.

• Listen: Listen to their thoughts, feelings, and points of view with
empathy; don’t interrupt, judge, or criticize; listening opens the door to a
trusting relationship.

• Accept feelings: Anxiety, irritability, anger, and depression are normal
reactions to loss and trauma and will subside over time in a safe

• Be patient and supportive: It takes time to come to terms with trauma
and grieve losses; each child’s path to recovery is unique; offer comfort
and reassurance; be available when they are ready.

• Encourage healthy expression: Children act out distress negatively
without constructive outlets; foster the use of art, play, music,
sports, journaling, and other healthy forms of expression.

• Maintain consistency: Structure and routines enhance security and
stability; provide appropriate rules, expectations, boundaries, and

• Promote a sense of control: Children feel helpless and powerless in
response to trauma; help them believe they can successfully deal
with challenges via constructive activities (e.g., hobbies, sports, clubs,

• Make home a safe place: Your home should be a “safe haven,” a place
of comfort, security and peace; stress and chaos provoke traumatic
reactions; minimize conflict and give discipline with calmness and love.

• Foster new beliefs: Children develop negative beliefs about themselves and others when traumatized; offer “listening time” to give children a chance to share feelings, problem-solve, establish trust and create positive beliefs.

• Be honest: Children make up their own stories if adults don’t help them
understand the truth; honesty is essential, but keep in mind their age
and emotional ability; avoid details that could re-traumatize them.

• Help with trauma stories: Children are asking for help when they tell
their stories; listen, be supportive, help them “make sense” of what
happened; send the message that it was not their fault, and help them
understand their feelings.

• Don’t take it personally: Children can “push your buttons;” you are less
likely to be angry or anxious if you know your own emotional triggers—then you can remain calm and respond in a helpful way.

• Focus on the positive: Acknowledge and praise positive behavior; “catch your
child doing something right;” have fun, laugh—humor reduces tension
and creates connection; playing is a great way to bond.

• Limit media: TV, movies, and video games may be frightening and
over- stimulating; monitor and supervise media based on your child’s emotional needs and reactions.

• Be aware of body language: Your tone of voice, facial expressions, and
body language communicate more than your words; show via body language that you are safe, understanding, and supportive.

• Maintain perspective: You can’t change the fact that tragic events
happened, but you can change how you interpret and respond to those
events; help children accept what can’t be changed and focus on things
that can be changed.

• Have an “opportunity mindset:” People often grow following tragedy and
hardship: better relationships, self-worth, inner strength, spirituality,
and appreciation for life; help children use their experiences to learn
and grow.

• Inspire a sense of belonging: Being a part of a family and community
enhances children’s security, identity and loyalty; traditions and rituals
increase their sense of belonging (e.g., celebrate birthdays, holidays,
cultural customs and practices).

• Volunteer as a family: Charitable actions turn pain into something
positive, create a sense of purpose and control (“I can make a
difference”),which leads to reclaiming hope; assisting others also benefits
the helper.

• Avoid labels: Labeling a child can have negative consequences; the
child labeled as “difficult” can develop a reputation that follows him
or her everywhere; when children see themselves as bad they act bad.

• Take care of yourself: Stay healthy so that you can take care of your
children; be a good role model of self-care and stress management—
eat well, exercise, get plenty of rest and support, avoid alcohol and
drugs, do yoga, meditation, and spiritual practices; surround yourself
with loving and supportive friends and family.

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