Habitot Children's Museum
November 2017

Healing From Traumatic Events

Whether directly impacted or not, both children and adults can experience traumatic stress after natural disasters, violence in the community or loss. This is especially true nowadays because it’s so hard to avoid being exposed through media. Parents can and should take steps to protect their children and themselves and to help young children process life-changing experiences.
Symptoms in children might appear as increased difficulty regulating their behaviors and emotions. They may become clingy, easily frightened, difficult to console, or even aggressive as they work to process trauma.  These feelings may be more dramatic in the youngest of children who are not yet able to express in words when they feel afraid, overwhelmed, or helpless. These symptoms might appear immediately and after some passage of time.
With immediate support and reassurance, children are often able to recover faster than adults. Parents and other close relatives are key to a young child’s recovery by working to reestablish normal routines, showing that the grownups are handling the safety and stability of the family, by helping them regain emotional balance, and restoring their trust in the world. The actions of helping young children move on from trauma can be beneficial and healing for grownups, too, however be mindful that not all who have been impacted are able to provide this assurance as they are still dealing with their own trauma. It’s important for adults to seek support and help for themselves in tandem for as long as it takes.
Here are some additional tips on supporting the young children exposed to or experiencing traumatic events:

  • Limit your child’s media exposure. Turn off 24-hour news on TV and radio when children are around. Children have no tools yet to process these images and will find them confusing, frightening and possibly traumatizing, even if they are not directly affected by the event.
  • Keep talking, but make it age-appropriate. The youngest children, whose language skills are limited, will be listening to hear what others are talking about - what they have been through, heard or seen. The emotional undertone of these conversations will have the biggest impact on young children. Therefore, it’s important to protect them from overly dramatic or scary renditions and emotional displays. Staging positive conversations for them to eavesdrop can be useful. For older children, answer their questions honestly and in language they can understand, and follow-up with what people are doing to help others. It’s important not to force children to talk but to continue to present opportunities for conversation. Even years down the line, asking, “remember when ___ happened?” can elicit a conversation and reveal unresolved fears that you can then address. Remember that children may have friends or relatives who have been affected and this can have an especially dramatic impact on them. 
  • Play is useful. Give children space to play out their fears – it’s an important part of how they process life’s experiences, and eventually heal from trauma. Don’t be alarmed if children pretend play escaping from burning buildings, for example. Play gives them autonomy – a sense of being in control – and this is hugely important to the story they carry in their minds about their experiences. For very young children, consider using stuffed animals to pretend play or re-enact a traumatic situation. This strategy can be especially helpful in a quiet moment before bedtime. Emotional recovery is supported when you include in this pretend play what grownups are doing to help. Children are reassured hearing about (and pretending to be) first responders, firefighters, people with dogs who can find trapped people, doctors and nurses who set up emergency medical clinics, etc. Don’t be surprised if traumatized children want to repeat reenactments many times – allow them to do it as long as they need to.
  • Develop a family safety plan.It is important to be prepared in case of emergencies, and including your children in your safety planning will help them have a sense of control and let them know you are prepared and committed to their safety.
  • Find ways to have fun and relax together.  As much as you can, keep your normal routine, including a lot of time for play and laughter. Life goes on even when things change, so be the playful force of love and consistency your child needs.
  • Manage your own stress. Take time off to take care of yourself when you need, get support from your friends and family, and keep a healthy mind and body. The more calm, relaxed and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your child. 
  • Know when to get help.If your child has fears or displays atypical behaviors that worsen over time or don’t go away, seek the support of your child’s pediatrician or a childhood mental health professional.
2065 Kittredge St., Berkeley   |   Habitot.org   |   510. 647.1111
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