Helping Children Recover from Accidents, Grief, or Trauma
By Peter A. Levine Ph.D. with
Maggie Kline, M.F.T., School Psychologist,
Long Beach Unified School District
When young children and infants suffer a serious injury or are deeply frightened by an event or loss, they are traumatized, carrying inside them subtle residual symptoms that are frequently missed, symptoms that may stay with them for a lifetime.
Parents need to understand that trauma is a fact of life. But the good news is that trauma doesn’t have to last a lifetime. It doesn’t have to hurt forever. A few minutes spent with your child in an appropriate way will not only minimize the chance of lasting effects but actually make the child more resilient to life’s stresses and extreme events.
It Won’t Hurt Forever: Helping Children Move Through Trauma, Stress and Loss is an essential audio learning tool for parents developed by Dr. Peter Levine to help prevent the affects of traumatization in children. Forty years of research and observation have clearly shown that we humans have a built-in ability to heal and repair the psyche. Our role as parents, then, is to help our children access their own natural ability to recover.
What Are the Causes of Trauma in Children?
Some situations may overwhelm a child’s "elastic limit," causing them to remain distressed or traumatized in some way after the situation has passed. Some children may have less resilience than others. And there are certain kinds of events that would be simply overwhelming to almost any child, such as the exposure to violent situations. Natural disasters, medical procedures, illnesses, or the sudden loss of a family member due to death or divorce can traumatize a child.
Less dramatic events, that may seem rather ordinary to an adult, are not for a child. Getting lost in a mall, for example, is extremely frightening for a young child. Even a seemingly minor physical injury, such as falling off a bicycle, can be misinterpreted by the child as punishment for something he or she has done.
How To Recognize Trauma In A Child
Parents generally know their children well enough to recognize when an indication is outside the child’s normal behavior. There are some common reactions that children will display. After a stressful event, watch for withdrawal, fearfulness, irritability, excessive shyness, clinging, emotional outbursts, aggression toward other children, hurting animals or other forms of acting out. Other indications include nightmares, bedwetting, thrashing in bed or difficulty falling asleep. Becoming too easily startled or regressive behaviors such as thumb sucking may also be observed.
Physical symptoms are also common, and these include tummy and headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation. Over time, the child may even develop avoidance behaviors. These include specific phobias, such as the fear of dogs if the child has been bitten, or general phobias, such as a phobia about going to school.
Your Response Calibrates the Child’s Response
Children are extraordinarily sensitive to the body language of adults, but as parents we are usually feeling a mix of emotions ourselves after our child has been injured or we have been exposed to a traumatic event. Our instincts are screaming out to us that we should have been protecting the child from harm. Unfortunately, if you are exhibiting signs of anxiety or panic, you’re going to be sending out all the wrong signals to your child.
If you are able to stay relatively calm, however, your child will also calm down. So it is important that you move through your own shock, fear or anxiety first, since your goal is to support your child rather than "infect" him or her with your emotions. Allowing time for your own bodily responses to settle rather than scolding or running anxiously towards your child is your first response as a parent.
Steady Reassurance Tells the Child it’s Okay to Feel Scared
Giving comfort to one’s child comes naturally to a parent, but patience is critical. We have to allow children to work through the "bad feelings." And if that means letting them cry, so be it. Children need lots of reassurance. It is important to be there for them and to tell them that everything is going to be okay. Let them know that the powerful emotions they are experiencing, such as anger, rage, sadness or fear, are perfectly normal under the circumstances.
Patience and pacing gives your child permission to be authentic, no matter what they are experiencing. This acceptance and respect sets the conditions for the child to rebound to a healthy sense of well-being in his or her own time.
Of course, while we may be aware of what we can and should be doing under the circumstances, the process itself can be both challenging and overwhelming to actually put into practice.
The program, It Won’t Hurt Forever is designed to gently guide you through the process as you support your child in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Utilizing Somatic Experiencing,® a body-awareness approach to trauma, the long term affects can be resolved through the language of sensations. This approach is being taught throughout the world. It is the result of over forty years of observation, research, and hands-on development by Dr. Peter Levine.
The program is highly effective at helping your child identify and express those sensations. Rhymes and images are used as simple empowering exercises that help connect children with their own bodies through nature. Prompting children to describe their feelings offers them the opportunity to take notice of the sensations in their bodies—their muscles feel, their heart and their breathing, for example.
Animal rhymes and illustrations provide children with the sense of power they need to transform trauma into a positive experience. For example, the Oscar Opossum verses show children that their behavior is not only normal but smart, that "playing possum" is actually a survival mechanism. Finally, storytelling and story creation allow a child to sense and discharge any residual trauma energy and in some way complete what was incomplete.
There is no right or wrong way to use this program, but it is designed so that you and your child use it together. It Won’t Hurt Forever, Helping Children Move Through Trauma, Stress and Loss creates a safe space for you and your child, allowing you to monitor your child’s responses in a way that is creative and fun for both of you. You will be able to develop a vocabulary of sensations through images, guided rhymes and stories, so you can calmly and creatively work though the traumatic event. It will affirm your confidence in your child’s inner resilience and you will be thrilled to know that you have been such a vital part of that recovery.