Parenting a Child Who Has Experienced a Traumatic Event

Parenting A Child Who Has Experienced A Traumatic Event

I have never known anyone who has not been touched by a traumatic event at least once in their life before passing away. Most people will experience at least one traumatic experience throughout their lifetime; studies show nearly 64% of adults report having one or more traumatic life events during their childhood. This number would probably grow if the timeframe studied were over the whole course of one’s lifespan. According to the ACES study, adverse childhood events lead to issues in neurodevelopment, hinder social, emotional and cognitive functioning, and lead to behaviors that risk a person’s health—leading to disease, disability, social issues, and ultimately early death. This does not mean, however, that everyone will be “traumatized.” People are resilient and usually bounce back from shocking moments in time.

I have treated multiple children with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even more with a handful of post-traumatic stress symptoms rather than a full-blown PTSD diagnosis. As a therapist, I feel hopeful for those that “walk in the door” with such PTSD or its symptoms. While the parents are ravaged from fear for their child, I have an astounding amount of hope; I have seen great improvement in the lives of those in the grip of trauma, both child, and adult clients.

The first step is to understand trauma symptoms

This can often look like attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity (ADHD or ADD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), or even anxiety or depression. Often these issues co-occur, and sometimes the previously stated issues improve upon proper trauma treatment. Children become increasingly disorganized, impulsive, angry, violent, spacey, fixated on death and suffering, and more. These are common reactions to trauma and are expected in some capacity for anyone who suffers trauma.

As a parent, it is important to normalize a child’s reaction to the traumatic event. Assume that if you were your child, with his or her life circumstances and individual traits, that you would probably respond similarly. Regardless of the terrible behavior, you see from your child, convey to him/her that you do not blame him/her for such a response.

A great next step includes helping your child find self-soothing activities

This is done well through modeling; find what works for you and demonstrate to your child diligence in attempting to create a soothing environment for yourself. Take notice of what calms your child—music, being outside, etc. and create a number of opportunities for this on a regular basis. The more one does relaxation exercises, the greater the decrease in the general level of anxiety one feels, so they may not experience as great of or as frequent of spikes of anxiety. Also, noteworthy, anxiety in children often looks like outbursts, meltdowns, and impulsivity, just to name a few.

Offer the child an opportunity to externalize the story-line of traumatic events. This is no time to be nosy about the details. Let the child know that it is normal to avoid distressing thoughts and again that you do not blame them for wanting to not talk or “forgetting” details. Walking through rather than around, under, over, or simply stopping shy of the details is imprisoning, and creates deeper PTSD symptoms. Offer to lend a listening ear when the child feels brave enough to share; buy the child a journal or drawing board that you allow them to keep private if necessary. *This is often a time of heightened symptoms, so help keep your child safe and be patient with him/her.

Make yourself a safe listener of the story. As a parent, the details of your child’s traumatic event can stir guilt, shame, and overwhelming anger, and sorrow for you. Prepare yourself with a therapist or other healthy support for hearing the details without becoming overwhelmed in front of your child. You can display heartbreak and empathy for the child but do not lose control in front of your child regarding their trauma. They will learn from your containment that their distress is manageable. Helping your child to share the story can be empowering for the child but help the child to know who is safe to tell and who is not. Be someone safe or connect the child with someone safe. Make sure to ensure the child’s further safety. Take measures to display to your child that his or her safety matters to you and follow up with some type of new safety protocol. For instance, a child that has been sexually abused by a distant family member might respect a parent’s new rule that he or she will not leave the child alone with the family member again and that any potential contact will be done with supervision. Parents can also enroll the child in self-defense classes, karate, or sports to help empower the child physically and mentally.

Take care of yourself. As mentioned above, take all opportunities for self-soothing and relaxation as often as possible. It is good for you, and your child will learn your ways. Reach out for support. Parents are often paralyzed with guilt when a child is harmed physically or emotionally. I care deeply for parents in this state, and I know many people who do. You matter and are still a worthwhile parent. You are not alone! Remember, 64% of adults report having been traumatized as a child; that is a lot of parents who have had children experience trauma. We are all in this together.

“Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution, He will come to save you.’” Isaiah 35: 3-4

For further information:
(ACES Study for effects of trauma as well as protective factors)
(various articles for support for struggling parents)

Violence Prevention. (2016, June 14). Retrieved October 02, 2017, from

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