What helps kids recover from traumatic events? How can we help them move beyond scary experiences?
"I have a 5-year-old son who has become more and more clingy over the past year. He doesn't like to do anything without me and when I go away he becomes really upset. A few weeks ago he got lost on some trails near our house. He was alone for over an hour on the trails, cold, wet, and expecting me to show up any minute. I was the one who found him eventually and we were both pretty scared. Since then, anytime I go mountain biking, he becomes really upset and angry. Tonight he sat on the front step and wouldn't budge until I came home. He yells all kinds of mean things at his Dad and says he doesn't know how to take care of him. I've tried talking to my son about it, but I don't know if he really even understands why he's feeling what he's feeling, so how can he express it to me?" - B.
This is a great question! Children can easily be traumatized by events that adults perceive as temporary or non-threatening.
Obviously, this experience of being lost was terrifying for you both, but for your son - it was the last straw.
His tolerance for the stress and worry of being without you hit its breaking point.
This event has caused him to get stuck in the moment. The very thought of you leaving him again is too terrifying for him to even consider, let alone live through without some close connected support.
Dr. Peter Levine, the author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, says that trauma is about a "loss of connection - to ourselves, to our bodies, our families, and others" - essentially to the world around us.
He says, "people can be traumatized by any experience that they perceive (consciously or unconsciously) as life-threatening."
Your child's hypervigilance and exaggerated reactions to these normal everyday events (such as you leaving for a bike ride) may seem inappropriate, but it is his survival instinct kicking in without his conscious awareness.
That arousal he experiences drives his desire to cling to you.
It's biological. His mind and body are working hard to keep him safe from his perception of abandonment.
These behavioral reactions may even come and go, which might fool you into thinking that he is in conscious control of his responses.
Here are five tips that will help your son process this experience and release any lingering negative emotions.
1. Take a moment to breathe and regulate your own emotions in response to your child's reactions.
Do you become agitated, stressed or impatient? What happens to your body when your child begins to recall his traumatic memories and experience separation anxiety?
Remain in (or reclaim) a peaceful state by attending to your own emotional reactions before you engage with your child.
2. Empathize with your child's emotional state.
Notice what happens to your child at the moment he becomes aroused.
Does he shake, cry, collapse? Validate these bodily reactions and any emotions you observe.
Don't interrupt what you see by asking him to "calm down" or telling him "you’re going to be okay," but verbalize that he is "shaking because he feels scared" or "crying because he feels worried."
Don't add "but I'll be home soon." Just stay with your child in his place of discomfort. Be silent if you feel pressured to speak.
You can use verbal or non-verbal signals to show acceptance of his emotional state.
3. Acknowledge and validate any needs your child may be unconsciously expressing.
A need to...
- unload the scary memory and painful emotions
- re-connect and re-establish a sense of safety
- hear that his emotions are normal reactions
Allow him to express his frustration about his Dad or whatever might be upsetting him without feeling like you have to do something or fix anything.
Just let him express without a focus on the end result.
4. Connect to problem-solve.
You can re-visit the trauma through play and stories to help your child discharge any residual negative emotions.
You can tell your version of what happened and how you experienced it, and then invite your child to share what it was like for him.
This can be done with drawings or dolls or play-acting. Allow your child's story to be told while surrounded by your unconditional acceptance.
5. Help your child grow.
Re-tell the story and change the ending. Use characters (instead of yourselves) and give them superhero powers of confidence, strength and patience.
When your child has had enough distance from the event, go on a bike ride together back to the location and re-enact the situation (without actually leaving your child) while supporting him through all those frightening moments.
You can also revisit the traumatic experience by inviting your child to investigate any objects, such as your bike, that may trigger his stress-response. Stay with him and validate any feelings or sensations he experiences. Try not to judge them or push them away as "nothing to worry about."
Resist the temptation to talk your child out of his feelings. This can interrupt the healing process.
Know that walking head-first - together - through those uncomfortable feelings will help him release the grip on his nervous system that this event has captured.
I have used these exact steps with my daughter to help her through situations that left her traumatized. She once witnessed someone act out in a highly aggressive manner, and it was this process that helped ensure that she didn't carry that event forward.
Kids build resilience when allowed to feel their way through their pain. (Tweet it!)
It might seem counter-intuitive to revisit a traumatic experience and validate seemingly irrational emotions. But resilience comes through recognizing our emotions and then having the courage to feel our way through them.
I'd love to know what you think. Has your child experienced a traumatic event?
What would you say to help him or her recover from the experience and release any tension or fear that may be affecting their behavior? Leave a comment below and share your story.
Until next time, please remember, it's about consciousness - not perfection. Have a great week!
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