Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: Addressing Grief And Trauma In Healthy Ways
How to guide children after trauma.
- The body knows how to heal itself from shock.
- Children need adults to guide them in trusting their bodies and healing.
- Resilient people know how to process the emotions resulting from trauma.
In the face of pandemic-related loss, everyone needs to learn to grieve losses and deal with the shock of sudden loss in healthy ways.
Peter Levine and Maggie Kline provide excellent guidance for parents in their book, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience.
Trauma happens when we are overwhelmed by an experience and get disconnected to our bodies, our feelings, our psyches. It’s the opposite of empowerment.
Whether a person is vulnerable to trauma depends on a lot of individual factors—like how much stress they are under at the time or how easily they are triggered into a stress response. The younger the person, the more vulnerable they are, the more likely they are to experience trauma from an unexpected event. For example, separation from the caregiver is traumatic for a baby because, from an evolutionary perspective, it is not expected.
Here are practices that build resilience in children (and everyone!).
Build a vocabulary that expresses sensory awareness. The authors provide various ways to do this. One way is a party game of putting various objects on a tray and having the child (blindfolded) touch or taste and describe the sensation (e.g., prickly, tickly, sweet, crunchy). The different types of feelings can then be transferred to how the child is feeling in different parts of their body during different situations.
The goal is to prepare methods for dealing with trauma when it comes.
Trauma First Aid. There are eight steps to unwind the effects of a threatening, painful, or frightening experience—seven for the body, one for the emotions.
1. Check your own responses first. Perform emotional first aid on yourself. Breathing deeply, notice the sensations in your own body. Scan your body and get in contact with the ground.
2. Assess the situation. How does your child look? Look for signs of shock: pale skin, glazed eyes, rapid or shallow breathing and pulse, disorientation, too much or too little emotion. It is important to help the child stay put but feel safe with you. Speak confidently but calmly to the child: “You are safe. Let’s stay here right now to calm down.”
3. As the shock wears off (shock symptoms subside), help the child assess their sensations. What do you feel in your body (mention different parts)?
4. Follow your child’s pace. Timing is vital. Slow down and don’t ask too many questions. Be alert for shifts in mood. Notice signs of relaxation, deep breaths, stretch or yawn. There may be more than one cycle, so wait patiently.
5. Continue to validate your child’s physical responses. Crying and trembling are healing, so don’t stop them. Convey reassurance that it is okay to express the scary stuff.
6. Trust your child’s ability to heal. Try not to disrupt your child’s natural self-healing. Don’t move the child or interfere in their attention. The most important thing for you to do is stay emotionally present with your child. When your child starts to look around, this is a sign of resolution, of letting go of the stressed energy.
7. Encourage continuing rest. Do not ask questions. The release will continue eventually into the night’s sleep.
8. Later on, when your child is rested (perhaps the next day), set aside time to talk about what happened and your child’s feelings, accepting the feelings whatever they are and perhaps relating a similar experience you had.
Processing a Traumatizing Experience. One of the best ways to help a child process a traumatizing experience (e.g., falling off a swing, being strapped down in the hospital for medical care, a close grandparent dying). Act out what happened or use stuffed animals or whatever the child wants to use to represent characters in the drama.
1. Let the child be in charge of the pace and the script. Refrain from judgments or advice.
2. Distinguish fear, terror, and excitement. A child needs to move into a feeling of empowerment in the face of fear. It takes time and many iterations of playing out a scenario for the child to eventually feel in control of his actions. It’s okay to offer encouragement when your child feels excitement, but don’t push them to feel fear.
3. Move slowly. In replaying the scene; it takes small shifts over the repetitions, and these are best not interfered with or the child may get stuck in stereotyped play and not heal. The child needs you to help them keep moving.
4. Be a safe container. The child will want to rework their experience through play. You are there to help them do that. Avoid getting caught in your own feelings or triggers, which will shift attention to you instead. Get therapy if this happens.
The authors provide a similar list of steps as first aid for child accidents and falls. They add: holding your child, being mostly quiet while the child recovers—waiting one or two minutes between questions you ask, and not discussing ‘what happened’ during the first-aid period.
The book provides guidance on children’s developmental periods and what to expect. It discusses various situations that can cause trauma to a child, including death and divorce.
There are multiple moments when divorce is traumatizing: when the child is told about the divorce, when a parent moves out, what the custody arrangements are, when arrangements are made, when the child starts living in two homes, when a parent starts dating or remarries or moves away. Each of these moments will need to be processed as a traumatizing event.
For the death of a loved one, the authors review the stages of grief, which are not necessarily sequential or finalized: denial/disbelief, sadness, anger/resentment, bargaining, acceptance. Parents can follow the lead of the child who has lost a pet, providing the kind of non-interfering support described earlier, so the child can decide on the steps to honor the pet’s life and death.
The book is filled with examples of responsive parenting that can help children become resilient and face whatever life throws at them.
Levine, P. A., & Kline, M. (2008). Trauma-proofing your kids: A parents’ guide for instilling confidence, joy and resilience. North Atlantic Books.