If a traumatic event happens once and is not likely to repeat, it is said the child has simple trauma. If the traumatic event happens repeatedly, over a period of time, and/or is likely to happen again, the child is said to have complex trauma. Depending on the severity and duration of the abuse, distressing emotional reactions to triggering events can last weeks to years after the traumatic events have stopped. It depends on how long the abuse went on, how many times it happened, who perpetrated the abuse and who was impacted by it (other than the child).
Ask your child where they feel safest. For example, they may say “under the bed,” “in my room,” “when you hold me.” When your child’s behavior indicates they have been triggered by trauma memories, you can simply ask if they would like to go to their safe place for a little while. Let them know that you will be nearby in case they would like your company.
Purchase or create cards that express common emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, guilt and sadness. Include cards with positive emotions as well, such as happy, safe, comfortable and silly. Developing your child’s “feeling” vocabulary will allow them to express their feelings verbally rather than using acting-out behaviors. Young children can be asked to point to the card that expresses how they are feeling.
When a child acts out, it is easy to focus on controlling the behavior rather than understanding what underlies the behavior. With a traumatized child, use the behavior as a window into the emotions that precipitated the acting out. Use your active listening skills to engage the child in talking about their feelings and focus on the emotions expressed rather than the behavior used to express it. Active listening requires listeners to feedback what they hear to the speaker, by way of restating or paraphrasing what they have heard using their own words. For example, if your child says, “I hate myself; I ruin everything,” you could say, “You sound very angry with yourself and feel like you have caused a lot of trouble.” Reflecting your child’s thoughts and feelings is often enough to successfully interrupt the negative behavior.
With your child, develop a plan that they can easily use when something happens that triggers abuse memories. It could be a card with contact numbers for the people that make them feel safe, a poem or saying that gives them strength, a place for them to go where they feel safe, tactile safety articles such as a “safety stone,” stuffed animal, or a comforting photo or picture card. Create reminder cards that contradict the triggered memories, such as “he can’t hurt me anymore,” “I am safe now,” “I’m not alone anymore,” “these are ‘terror’ feelings that will pass” or “people believe me now.”
When your child experiences trauma triggers or flashbacks, encourage them to engage in physical activities that are easy for them to do. This will help to decrease the physiological aspect of the triggered brain. Examples include practicing deep breathing, engaging the thinking brain by writing down the experience in a notebook, starting to color in a coloring book, playing ball or jumping rope, or simply focusing on what’s around them at that very moment and describing the scene out loud.
Once the child is calm enough, engaging in play is a good way to reorient the child to the present and to engage their thinking brain. For young children it could mean putting together a puzzle or building with blocks. For older children it could mean playing a game outside, playing cards or a board game, or going out for a favorite activity.
Children have different ways of looking for attention, but the key is to show affection in ways that are meaningful to your child. For a young child it may mean sitting on your lap and rocking and/or singing songs together. For an older child it might mean a simple hug, holding hands or a pat on the back. For some children it may be best to speak soothing words of kindness and affection. The goal is to show your love and reduce your child’s feelings of shame, guilt or powerlessness that the traumatic memories may have awakened.
All attempts to address the acting-out behavior and to impose consequences should be avoided until the child has regained their sense of self-control and emerged from the physiological and psychological trauma state induced by the traumatic memories. Once you are confident that the child has regained their self-control and is firmly in the here and now, you can then address the problematic behaviors triggered by the trauma.