Helping Traumatized Children
How Can I Help?
1. Don't be afraid to talk about the traumatic event. Children do not benefit from 'not thinking about it' or 'putting it out of their minds'. If a child senses that his/her caretakers are upset about the event, they will not bring it up. In the long run, this only makes the child's recovery more difficult. Don't bring it up on your own, but when the child brings it up, don't avoid discussion, listen to the child, answer questions, provide comfort and support. We often have no good verbal explanations, but listening and not avoiding or over-reacting to the subject and then comforting the child will have a critical and long-lasting positive effect.
2. Provide a consistent, predictable pattern for the day. Make sure the child has a structure to the day and knows the pattern. Try to have consistent times for meals, school, homework, quiet time, playtime, dinner and chores. When the day includes new or different activities, tell the child beforehand and explain why this day's pattern is different. Don't underestimate how important it is for children to know that their caretakers are 'in control.' It is frightening for traumatized children (who are sensitive to control) to sense that the people caring for them are, themselves, disorganized, confused and anxious. There is no expectation of perfection; caretakers themselves have often been effected by the trauma and may be overwhelmed, irritable or anxious. If you find yourself being this way, simply help the child understand why, and that these reactions are normal and will pass.
3. Be nurturing, comforting and affectionate, but be sure that this is in an appropriate 'context.' For children traumatized by physical or sexual abuse, intimacy is often associated with confusion, pain, fear and abandonment. Providing 'hugs', kisses and other physical comfort to younger children is very important. A good working principle for this is to be physically affectionate when the child seeks it. When the child walks over and touches you, return in kind. The child will want to be held or rocked—feel free. On the other hand, try not to interrupt the child's play or other free activities by grabbing them and holding them. Further, be aware that many children from chronically distressed settings may have what we call attachment problems. They will have unusual and often inappropriate styles of interacting.
Do not tell or command them to 'give me a kiss' or 'give me a hug.' Abused children often take commands very seriously. It reinforces a very malignant association linking intimacy/physical comfort with power (which is inherent in a caregiving adult's command to 'hug me').