Helping a Child Through Trauma Reactions

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Last week, we talked about how the pandemic can lead to or exaggerate PTSD and other trauma-related symptoms. This week, we want to focus on spotting pandemic-related PTSD-like issues in children and how to help.

Children and adults alike are at risk for developing trauma-related symptoms from the pandemic. Children, however, are less likely to understand what’s happening to them and may also struggle to find the language to talk about it. So this week we want to focus on child-specific information that could be helpful in supporting children through the pandemic.

Currently, children are faced with so many changes: time away from friends, a different approach to academics, and a whole host of new rules. The more sudden changes they go through, the more possibilities there are for experiencing trauma. This is particularly true for children whose loved ones have lost jobs, fallen ill, or passed away.

Some symptoms to keep an eye out for, that could indicate trauma reactions include: emotional reactivity (anger, crying, anxiety), jumpiness, nightmares, withdrawal, hopelessness, avoidance, intrusive thoughts, and sleep or appetite disturbance. Some of these symptoms could also be indicative of anxiety or depression. As a parent (or teacher), please check out the following suggestions for helping your child with these reactions:

  1. Get in touch with your own experience and emotions during this pandemic. Be open with your own feelings (in an age appropriate way) to show the child that all emotions are normal.
  2. Set-up self-care and relaxation routines for yourself and thereby model the behavior for your children.
  3. Listen and learn. Your child may want to tell you how they feel, but they may struggle to explain it. Be curious, ask questions, and listen. Don’t tell them how they should or should not feel, or argue about their feelings.
  4. Increase structure and predictability for the child. This pandemic has caused many sudden changes. Whether it’s related to school, leisure time, or social activities, make sure a child sees how their days and weeks are laid out, has things to look forward to, and knows what is expected of them.
  5. Give opportunities for the child to make decisions and be in control - choosing between 2 activities, choosing clothes or meals, choosing relaxation techniques, even choosing consequences.
  6. Lower the Bar i.e. reduce expectations. This is not a popular notion, but it can be very effective in helping a child who is feeling overwhelmed to feel in control again.
  7. Make positive use of the internet by finding and usingmindfulness videos and/or using a mindfulness app. such as Calm or Insight Timer.
  8. Practice self-compassion and compassion towards the child when mistakes happen or things go wrong. Emotional outbursts, withdrawal/shutdown, etc. can be understandable and forgivable.
  9. Provide ample safe social opportunities for the child to confide in and get support from people other than family.
  10. Consider having your child talk to a counselor. Video and in-person sessions are available and may give your child a safe space to work through emotions.

Children are experiencing a lot of emotions during the pandemic and these emotions are normal and expected. Some children, however, may be developing more severe psychological conditions. Try the above ideas, and if your child continues to struggle, please do reach out to seek professional help for your child.

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