Tips on How to Address Trauma with Children

By Sara Pineda, El Centro de Amistad Program Director After being exposed to the news, world events including natural disasters and violent tragedies that impact our lives, it’s not uncommon for children and adults to experience some fear, anxiety, or depression. For some parents it may be difficult to talk to their children to address some of the things that are happening around us. For a child who is exposed to a traumatic event such as the one this child was exposed to in this tragic story we may wonder what the potential effects of trauma are on children. (Read more here: A community aims for healing after boy witnesses mother’s fatal stabbing) What is Trauma? Trauma is an emotional response to an intense situation that threatens injury, death or the physical well-being of self or others, causes terror and horror or helplessness at the time of the event. Children’s responses to trauma may be influenced by several factors, such as their stage of development, ethnic and cultural factors, any pre-existing child and family challenges, and previous exposure to trauma. The majority of the children and youth express distress after experiencing a traumatic life event. They may display changes in behavior as they try to cope with what they have witnessed or experienced. Some examples of these behaviors are: separation anxiety, new fears, anger, irritability, sadness, physical symptoms like stomach aches, headaches and nausea, changes in sleeping patterns, reduced concentration, and academic decline. As a therapist at El Centro de Amistad in the San Fernando Valley, I have seen the healing that can occur over time. Children demonstrate resilience. What helps a child’s resiliency? Family, cultural, and community strengths promotes a child’s path to a better future. We have seen how social, community, and governmental support networks are very important in recovery and resilience as well. Reaching out to community-based organizations that provide mental health services is critical to getting the help they need. Research studies have also shown that some children will return to previous levels of functioning while others may have greater barriers to coping and recovery. Some of these barriers are ongoing life stressors, community stress, prior traumas, prior mental health issues and ongoing safety issues. When reactions appear to continue to impede in the daily functioning of the child, it is important to seek clinical attention. How can parents, caregivers, and other adults help children cope from a traumatic event? Here are things that adults can do to help a child cope with a traumatic situation: – Provide information about trauma and explain common responses to trauma, which can be helpful to the child, but also to the adults around the child. It is important that adults understand the different responses based on the child’s level of development. When adults and community members (teachers, coaches and clergy) understand responses to trauma, they can better support the child. – Assist the child by providing reassurance and comfort. – Answer questions in the language a child understands. – Help children expand their “feelings” vocabulary. – Re-establish routines to bring back some “normalcy” to a child’s life (bed times, returning to school and resuming leisure/social activities). – Provide tangible items, such as a picture of a loved one, stuffed animal or a favorite item, the child can have with them when they struggle with coping. – Work on helping children solve problems they face due to the trauma. – Allow a child to continue to have contact with other children or adults the child feels helps them. Children tend to gravitate towards people who provide stability and support. – Set boundaries and limits with consistency and patience. – Show love and affection. When a child is struggling in their efforts to cope, it is essential that clinical attention be considered. Mental health professionals like those at El Centro de Amistad in the San Fernando Valley will have the ability to provide trauma-informed treatment and intervention and methods to target trauma symptoms the child is struggling with.