Trauma in young children may be a result of neglect, abuse, witnessing violence or other stressful experiences during the earliest years. If you know that a child has experienced trauma in his life, you can help the healing process and foster his resilience in everyday life. These strategies are not a substitute for professional advice and treatment. Mental health assessment and treatment should be central in your care for the child.
How to Help a Child Who Has Experienced Trauma
Make a safe and healthy home environment. First, the child needs to feel safe and cared for. Make daily routines and healthy habits a top priority. Consistency in mealtimes and a balance of work, play and rest are simple things with great importance to children's sense of safety.
Build a sense of belonging. The child should feel that he is a full member of a cohesive family that has optimism and resiliency to cope with life's difficulties. Attachment with older children consists of sharing family goals and activities. Involve the child in planning family activities and make sure he feels that he has an important role in accomplishing goals that the family sets. Find ways to express your affection and love for the child every day.
Allow the expression of painful emotions. The traumatized child should be allowed to grieve. Under the surface of aggressive or self-destructive behavior, sadness will be revealed. Children should feel that it is safe to talk about their painful experiences, but they should not be pushed to do so. Provide creative play outlets for reducing tension - physical play and sports, art, dance, and music are just a few ideas for nonverbal tension reduction and mastery.
Help the child learn the skills he needs. Set clear rules and consequences for the child. Don't fall into the trap of spoiling the child or overlooking misbehavior. Help him learn how to stay in control and teach him new ways to manage painful emotions. A common area of difficulty for traumatized children is in school. Poor concentration and feelings of isolation often hamper school progress. Watch for problems in school and address them quickly. Gain the support of the child's teacher and school administration by being available when problems arise and taking steps to work with the school on issues of concern.
Build social support outside the immediate family. Teach the child good social skills. This will give her the confidence to move out into the world to make friends and have good relationships in the community and at school. I recommend the books on social skills at Girls and Boys Town Press. They teach step-by-step strategies for practicing social skills, such as following directions, joining a group, and how to accept no for an answer.
Teach optimism and hopefulness. Traumatized children are not doomed to a life of despair. Many who experienced trauma in early life go on to happy and fulfilled lives. Maintaining social support, building a sense of mastery and self-reliance, learning effective coping skills, and developing optimism and resiliency are the paths to recovery from trauma in childhood.