July 6th, 2021
How Parents, Guardians, and Caregivers Can Recognize Signs of Trauma, Re-imagine their Responses, and Provide Support to Children/Youth in a Loving Manner
I’ve often loved this question “What happened to you?” rather than “Why are you behaving this way?” or “What’s wrong with you?” I think the first question supports a deeper, more meaningful, and empathic engagement with people. This first question informs my clinical work with children1, youth, and all survivors of traumatic events, regardless of age. My educational background prepared my clinical work with children and youth who have experienced trauma, but as I’ve grown into the therapy field, I’ve witnessed and learned that adults, too, have inner children within them. Inner children that need and long for love, care, understanding, hope, safety, empathy, and connection. My current and ever-growing understanding of the inner child has also increased my openness to work with adult clients for whom I love and am grateful. While this post addresses my experiences working with children and youth, I also honor and respect working with adults whose inner children are pained.
Here are some initial observations and personal experiences I’ve encountered as a therapist. I will provide resources and research-based information below for those of you interested in delving more deeply:
I work with children whose parents2 might have received phone calls from school personnel because their child is hiding in the coat closet during instruction time or because their child is pinching a peer or “stealing” markers. Or, perhaps the parent is observing that at home their child is particularly unruly3 and refusing to eat their peas and carrots but later they find a stash of Butterfingers and Skittles under their child’s bed. While the child’s behavior may seem defiant or out of the ordinary, it’s my role to help unearth why the child is responding to their environment in a way that isn’t per their usual. In fact, that’s one of my favorite parts of my therapeutic alliance—seeing the world from a child’s lens. I firmly believe that children are trying to communicate something through their behavior, something that makes sense to them. Surely not everything a child does leads back to trauma, but sometimes it does.
Five million children experience a traumatic event each year (Fratto, p. 440). Traumatic events include, but are not limited to: experiencing a motor vehicle accident; being: bullied, threatened physically or emotionally, sexually abused; witnessing: parent’s substance misusage, animal abuse, or domestic violence; having: contact with law enforcement or CPS personnel; losing: a significant person either temporarily or permanently, for example, due to death, imprisonment, divorce, or separation by the child welfare system; experiencing: food and/or water insecurity, and any other abrupt and/or significant life change, for example, frequent moves and school changes. “The most prevalent form of long-term trauma is maltreatment” (Fratto, p. 440, emphasis added).
A child’s experience and emotional response to experiencing a traumatic event(s) is individual and certainly not quantitively measurable, as feelings and memory are subjective. Some of the events listed above may not be experienced as traumatic; again, depending on subjective experience and protective factors. Research does show that traumatic experiences can impact the physiological reactions of survivors in the form of increased blood pressure and increased heart rate (Children’s Bureau, 2014). The impact of elevated blood pressure and heart rate can create propensities for anxious mood and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A child’s responses to trauma can surface immediately, years later, and even decades later.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD include, but are not limited to:
- Heightened stress responses
- Increased aggression
- Anxious mood
- Hyper-vigilance (exaggerated startle response)
- Resistance to rules, or more commonly referred to as “defiance”
- Low or depressed mood
- Frequent nightmares
- Difficulty recognizing or responding to boundaries
- Disorganized thinking
- Dissociation (e.g., person appears to be in a dream-like state and/or is non-responsive or minimally responsive to others)
- Diminished trust with one’s self, others, and the world at large
- Self-injurious thoughts and behaviors
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
A parent’s role in supporting the aftermath of a child who has survived trauma is crucial for supporting the child’s return to baseline functioning. Certainly, a parent can seek outside support for their children through the help of a therapist, but how a parent responds is fundamentally important for providing their child safety, support, security, trust, hope, and a safe return to feeling better equipped to emotionally regulate.
Authors Heather T. Forbes, LCSW, and B. Bryan Post, PhD, LCSW, (2006) provide a comprehensive overview of how parents can respond to children who have been traumatized in the book “Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: A Love Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors.” The authors address behavior in children like stealing, lying, hoarding, lack of eye contact, and aggression—all of which can be bothersome behaviors to parents—and couch these behaviors through a trauma-based lens.
Let’s look now at aggression for a more technical example. Forbes and Post gently remind parents that when a child who has experienced trauma behaves aggressively, the child is responding from an over-stressed brain, fear, and they are in survival mode. The authors suggest that parents support their child’s emotional regulation through the following means: “relate to the fear within yourself that is triggered by the aggression [empathy], stay regulated in order to help regulating him [her/them], pull him for a ‘Time-In,’ stay flexible.” Essentially, a child in this heightened fear response needs a parent to provide safe structure and empathy, not further punishment . . . for the pain from their trauma is punishment enough.
I say this often to parents in therapy when I work with children, youth, and families: “Have you sought out your own therapy?” I say not from a deficit-mindset but, in part, because research shows that one of the best things a parent can do when their child is emotionally dysregulated is to offer a soothing response (see link for more information on mirror neurons). Parents who have had their own trauma often feel triggered into a fight-flight-freeze mode themselves when their child is. A parent who can be self-aware, insightful, and responsive is better suited to provide nurturing. A significant hats off to parents who are survivors of childhood trauma, as certainly raising a child whose also been traumatized is a parent’s worst nightmare. There is hope though.
In fact, there is a LOT of hope when it comes to post-traumatic growth and protective factors following traumatic events, which I will elaborate on in the next blog post.
For more information and support around childhood trauma, please view the following:
Dr. Dan Siegel has numerous resources for support around developing resiliency in children and understanding infant and child brain development.
Let’s work to make this world more understanding, empathic, peaceful, loving, and safe for our present and future. Special thanks to Laura Sanders, LMSW, Dr. Robert Ortega, and Mary Ortega, LMSW at University of Michigan’s School of Social Work for your help in educating me about child welfare.
For further questions, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1For simplicity, child is used, but youth can be substituted.
2For simplicity, parent is used, but guardian or caregiver can be substituted.
3N.B.: This blog post is not intended for parents who are the offenders of childhood abuse and neglect. Also, please note that I do not use terms like “defiant” or “unruly” in my clinical or personal language to describe children. Rather, I’m using these terms in this post to describe how some people in the world might see or label children who are survivors of trauma without knowing the tangled “why” beneath the behavior.
References not Hyper-Linked
Fratto, C.M. (2016). Trauma-Informed Care for Youth in Foster Care. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 30, 439-446. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2016.01.007