Parenting the Traumatized Child – Seven Tips
Unfortunately, there are many types of trauma children experience. In the Child Welfare Trauma Training Tool, 14 types of trauma are identified, five of which are listed here. The seven tips listed below have the five most common types of child trauma in mind: (1) physical abuse which occurs when a child suffers injury as a result of being hit, burned, kicked, or shaken; (2) neglect which occurs when a child’s basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, medical care and education – are not being met; (3) sexual abuse occurs when an adult or older child engages a younger child in a sexual act and includes exposing a child to pornography, fondling, touching, sexual intercourse, and rape; (4) emotional abuse which includes verbal abuse; and (5) “systems induced trauma” which occurs as a result of a child being removed from their home for foster care placement. It is important to be aware of the mere fact that a child has been removed from their home, placed in foster care, and separated from their parents, siblings and friends is traumatic.
It is also important to know that, you, as a caregiver, are critical to your child’s recovery. The help your child needs is from you as a parent or caregiver. If you are presently parenting a traumatized child, here are seven tips to help you understand the child in your care. If your child’s needs are more than you can handle, seek help from a mental health professional.
Tip #1: Know the signs of trauma and be observant. Children who have experienced abuse often have extreme and sudden changes in their behavior. If you are a foster or adoptive parent, you may not know how or if your child’s behavior has changed, or if the behavior you see is normal for a child their age. Therefore, it is important to listen when your child talks and be observant of their behaviors when it appears that they are acting out. Take note of what has happened before, during and after negative behavior in an effort to determine the cause. If the negative behavior is extreme relative to the cause, or if it appears there was no apparent reason, the behavior could be a manifestation of trauma. Some of the behavioral signs of trauma are unprovoked anger (demonstrated by hitting, throwing objects, biting, fighting), self-injurious behaviors, unexplained fears, crying for no apparent reason; being overly anxious, easily upset, or easily startled. Traumatized children do not know the proper way to react to typical, everyday situations. They need to be taught. The best way to teach children is to model the right way of doing things.
Tip #2: Delay discipline (Perry, 2001). For every child there should rules and consequences for breaking the rules. However, because traumatized children are unaware of the proper way to act, delaying discipline may be the best way to help them. Children of trauma may behave at an age considerably younger than their biological age both emotionally and socially. These children may lack the social skills that another child their age has successfully mastered. Mastering social skills is significant to the healing process. Take the time to understand why your child behaves the way he or she does and where these behaviors come from prior to the decision of how to discipline.
As previously stated, in many instances it can be beneficial to model the behavior you desire your child to learn (Perry, 2001), talking to him or her as you show the child what you would like him or her to do, instead of disciplining. For instance, your child may need to be taught to share when he wants to play with his toys alone, or a child may take what he or she wants, without asking permission. A child not following directions is not necessarily defiance, but may indicate that the child is easily confused and unable to remember what was asked of him or her. As your child begins to master these skills, the rules and consequences can be enforced when problem behavior occurs.
Tip #3: Give your children choices and let them make the final decision. When children have been abused or neglected, there is a sense of helplessness. They soon learn that they have no control in these abusive situations and can become extremely anxious. Children need to have some sense of control in their lives. Giving them choices helps restore a child’s sense of control, which also helps rekindle their mental and emotional development. Your child will be happy because he or she feels a sense of control by choosing what they want to do.
Tip #4: Provide structure. Children of trauma often have problems with attachment. For children with attachment issues, change is difficult (Perry, 2001). This fact makes structure and routine important. Establishing a set time for waking up in the morning, going to bed at night and everything in between is imperative for these children. It is also of great importance to let them know ahead of time if this set schedule is about to change.
Tip #5: Create a healing environment. Children of abuse and neglect have a great need to feel safe, secure and cared for. Having a sense of being protected is crucial. Children who lack support after a traumatic event suffer more than those who have support from family members or friends. If they have been removed from their homes, that security is lost leaving them feeling lost and alone. These children need to know that someone cares about what happens to them. Hence, it is important for you as a caregiver to help your child feel safe. One way to help a child who has been sexually abused feel safe and secure is by creating a safety plan. Although this child may be a stranger in your home, it is important that you nurture, comfort, and appropriately love that child. As all children do, these children need to be loved unconditionally.
Tip #6: Be a good listener. If your child doesn’t want to talk about what he/she has been through, don’t force it. Let the child bring the subject up on his or her own. Often, though, children need to tell and simply to be heard. Depending on the age of the child, he or she may not even need you to respond. However, if your child does want to talk, be prepared to listen. The child talking about trauma is part of the healing process. Let children express how they feel on their terms and in their own individual way. Listen, but don’t judge. Believing their story is important. If you are a foster parent or adoptive parent it is best that you do not ask questions, as an investigation may be pending. Just listen. You may assure them, however, that what happened was not their fault and that you are there to support them.
Tip #7: Consider therapy. Children may not show signs of trauma immediately, but signs may manifest some time later. If children who have been traumatized remain untreated, their traumatized state can interfere with their development with long-lasting consequences. Traumatized children may have regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting when they have already been potty/toilet trained; or an older child acting or talking like a baby who has just learned to speak. Early intervention is important. Seek help from a professional not just for your child, but also for you so that you can respond adequately to your child’s special needs and to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Child Welfare Trauma Referral Tool. Retrieved April 21, 2007, from http://www.nctsnet.org.
Perry, Bruce D., M.D., Ph.D. (2001). [Electronic version]. Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood. Child Trauma Academy, pp. 7, 8, 9. Retrieved from http://www.childtrauma.org.