Something traumatic is bound to happen to our children during their childhood. These events have the potential to make your child stronger and bring you closer to them, but it all depends on your reaction. Whether they need surgery, get injured, lose a family member, or worse, the chances are good that something very difficult will happen to them. But traumatic events do not guarantee that your child will become traumatized. There are many ways to help your child through these difficult times.
1. Prepare if you can
If a grandparent is going to die soon, or your child is going to have planned surgery, or even have an unpleasant experience such as a shot, blood draw, or brief separation from you, talk to them about it before it happens. It is best to be honest and realistic about how hard it will be: “You are going to have a shot. It is going to hurt or sting for a few minutes. You might feel scared, but I will be right there with you and I will keep you safe”.
2. Respect their response
After a traumatic or difficult event, your child will be sad, angry, confused, afraid and sensitive. They need you to be there for them and to validate how they feel. Do not try to minimize what happened by saying “It’s over now, just forget about it and move on”. Experiences become troubling to kids when they feel unheard. By rushing your child to get over their experience, you are asking them not to resolve it in their mind, which will cause problems down the road.
The most critical part about preventing trauma is allowing the traumatic event to resolve itself in your child’s mind.
3. Stay connected
Offer to draw the event together if your child is ready, create a book with them about it, and let them talk about it as much as they feel is necessary. Your child could not control the traumatic event, so they have to be in control of how they relate to it afterwords. Follow their lead and be there for them until they decide they have moved on.
4. Keep in touch
If your child was in an ambulance and one paramedic was especially comforting to them, ask to go back in a few weeks and get a photograph with their new hero (they might even let you photograph your child driving the ambulance). If your child was hospitalized and connected with an especially caring nurse, bake cookies with your child to bring to them. If your child was in a natural disaster, try to find other kids for them to talk to about their experience. These actions will help your child feel like the event is over, all bases have been covered, it is now in the past.
5. Keep the conversation open
The most critical part about preventing trauma is allowing the traumatic event to resolve itself in your child’s mind. If they haven’t talked enough about their feelings, if the event is being ignored as insignificant, or if people tell them to get over it and forget about it, the memories will literally remain in the part of their brain that manages stress. It will remain there and present itself over and over again through nightmares, fears, phobias, and anxiety until it is resolved.
Here is a short case study to show how a traumatic event can be resolved in childhood:
his mother supported his feelings, was patient as he worked the event out in his mind, and helped him document the event in a way that was age appropriate.
When Ryan was 3 years old, he managed to climb onto a picnic table in his backyard and soon fell off. He broke his right foot and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. He was soon released with a cast and needed physical therapy after it was removed.
Once home from the hospital, Ryan’s mother encouraged him to talk about the incident- it occupied his thoughts for the majority of the day for more than 2 weeks. She responded patiently and lovingly, mirroring his feelings and acknowledging that she was scared too. They visited the paramedics a couple of times after he healed and he even got a tour of the fire station. He helped his mom make a book, in the shape of a foot, to help him remember the event and express how he felt about it.
Ryan was scared of the picnic table for a few months but eventually recovered and started climbing at the park again. He does not have any unresolved anxiety related to the incident, and is now a healthy adult. This is possible because his mother supported his feelings, was patient as he worked the event out in his mind, and helped him document the event in a way that was age appropriate.