Five Easy Ways to Support Children Exposed to Trauma
Author: Jessie Klamar, LMSW
Whether it happens within your own family, your community, or at work, it can be difficult to know how to act around children who have experienced trauma. We have compiled a list of simple actions you can take to increase your confidence with littles ones or teenagers who have been exposed to any type of trauma or adversity. The following suggestions are backed by research and experience, but this article is not clinical advice and does not substitute for care from a licensed mental health professional.
- Use active listening. Active listening has a few crucial components: focusing your full attention on the other person, engaging with them through open-ended questions, and reflecting on their statements. By giving a child your full attention, you demonstrate that you are trustworthy and open to what they have to say, whether it’s trauma-related or not. An attentive listener is a caring listener. Asking open-ended questions (i.e. avoiding questions that will result in a yes or no answer) allows you to gather more information if needed, encourage the speaker to have their own insights, and show that you are truly invested in what they are saying. Reflection can be a verbatim restatement of what the child has said, or you can paraphrase. Either way, this gives the child an opportunity to correct your understanding and makes them feel truly heard. Demonstrating that you are open, empathetic, and available is a crucial part of any evidence-based approach to children and adolescents who have experienced trauma (Kataoka et al., 2012).
- Encourage strengths. Connecting children with their interests and encouraging them to pursue activities that give them a sense of mastery can increase resilience (Masten et al., 2009). A sense of progress and accomplishment goes a long way in the life of a child who has experienced trauma. This will look different for each child, but it will always take an adult to recognize and nurture a child’s strengths. Group activities like sports, chorus, or drama have the added benefit of connecting children with their peers. Children who have experienced trauma often isolate themselves from others out of a sense of mistrust, which can further impact their functioning and development (Cole et al., 2005). Check for free or low-cost opportunities in your community and have those resources readily available.
- Build emotional intelligence. Children who have experienced trauma may find it especially challenging to understand their own feelings as well as the emotions of others (Grillo & Lott, 2010). Be a role model of emotional awareness by identifying feelings and encouraging children to do the same. Useful tools include emotion cards or feeling faces, which facilitate labeling of emotions. Help children make the connection between their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors with books or educational shows– there are plenty of resources available! These books and videos can also assist with learning how to regulate intense emotion, which is a key element of resilience (Payton et al., 2000). Model emotional regulation in everyday moments. For example, you can say “I’m feeling overwhelmed so I’m going to take a few deep breaths,” then demonstrate belly breathing.
- Be a source of peace and predictability. A calm, consistent environment is important for all children, but it becomes especially important when interacting with children exposed to trauma (Grillo & Lott, 2010). Regardless of age, someone exposed to trauma can experience lasting effects on their nervous system (Sherin & Nemeroff, 2011). As a result, children can be in a near-constant state of sensory overload and may respond strongly to external stimuli. To combat this, try to provide consistency and calm in the way that you interact. Speak in a soft voice, use a neutral tone, and avoid sudden movements. Limit loud or repetitive noises and let children know what is going to happen beforehand as much as possible. When appropriate, ask for their permission and acknowledgement before interacting or making changes. Even something small like a consistent greeting and goodbye ritual can provide a sense of safety.
- Practice a trauma-informed perspective. Many children exposed to adversity and trauma exhibit behaviors that are misunderstood by peers, teachers, and family members. Destructive, disrespectful, or disruptive behavior can be a sign that a child or adolescent is not coping well after experiencing trauma (NIMH, 2022). It is possible to address unwanted behavior while also keeping the child in mind and creating a sense of security. A trauma-informed response to misbehavior could look like taking the child quietly aside and saying “It’s ok to be angry, but it’s not ok to break things. Let’s go outside and take a walk instead.” Aim to address the behavior while also avoiding punishment, especially consequences involving shame or isolation (Bowen & Mahnke, 2015).
Finally, remember that you have our support! Our clinic is passionate about identifying and treating posttraumatic stress in children and adolescents. You may feel overwhelmed, but there is no reason you have to go through this alone. Visit our website or give us a call if you think we can help.
Bowen, E. B. & Mahnke, A. (2015). Everyday magic: 16 ways adults can support children exposed to violence and trauma. Futures without violence.
Cole, S.F., O’Brien, J.G., Gadd, M.G., Wallace, D.L., & Gregory, M. (2005). Helping Traumatized Children Learn: A Report and Policy Agenda. Boston: Massachusetts Advocates for Children.
Grillo, C.A. & Lott, D.A. (2010). Caring for Children Who Have Experienced Trauma: A Workshop Resource for Parents. (via The National Child Traumatic Stress Network). Retrieved from http:nctsn.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/rpc/RPC_ParticipantHandbook_FINAL.pdf
Kataoka, S., Langley, A. K., Wong, M., Baweja, S., & Stein, B. D. (2012). Responding to students with posttraumatic stress disorder in schools. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 21(1), 119–x. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2011.08.009
Masten, A. S., Cutuli, J. J., Herbers, J. E., & Reed, M.-G. J. (2009). Resilience in development. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (pp. 117–131). Oxford University Press.
National Institute of Mental Health (2022). Helping children and adolescents cope with disasters and other traumatic events: What parents, rescue workers, and the community can do. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/helping-children-and-adolescents-cope-with-disasters-and-other-traumatic-events
Payton, J.W., Wardlaw, D.M., Graczyk, P.A., Bloodworth, M.R., Tompsett, C.J., & Weissberg, R.P. (2000). Social and emotional learning: a framework for promoting mental health and reducing risk behaviors in children and youth. Journal of School Health. 70(5): 179-185.
Sherin, J. E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder: the neurobiological impact of psychological trauma. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 13(3), 263–278. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2011.13.2/jsherin