How often do you hear parents or adults make a comment about a child’s traumatic experience like the following “It’s probably better not to talk about it. They’re too young to understand!”
Is it right not to talk about it?!
Traumatic events can create both short-term and long-term impacts on an individual’s life and can cause significant impairment in relationship as well as the person’s wellbeing and happiness. There is a profound body of research showing the impact of childhood trauma on adults’ life and their abilities to cope or deal with life stressors. Many adults assume that the children do not have the capacity to understand the traumatic events and their impacts and that is often the reason why they do not talk about or deal with the situation.
The truth is, even though children often might not understand what happened, they are affected by the events and sometimes by the way their caregivers react to the events. Infants and young children in particularly react to traumatic events differently due to their inability to verbalise their reactions to threatening, dangerous or overwhelming events.
So what is defined as traumatic events?
It has been suggested that any subjective experience of an event by a child that is distressing or emotionally painful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects can be considered traumatic experience (The Australian National University, 2010). This can include:
– Being in an accident;
– Natural disasters;
– Domestic violence;
– Intentional violence such as physical, verbal or sexual abuse;
– Loss of a primary caregiver;
– Painful medical procedures, etc.
Up to one in four children experience traumatic events in their childhood. Fortunately, most are resilient or supported in the helpful way so that they can gradually return to their previous functioning over time. These children grow up into adulthood with the appropriate coping skills that they have learnt and implemented in order to deal with any life stressors.
On the other hand, there are some who continue to experience difficulties into their adulthood as the impact of trauma has not been resolved and dealt with in an appropriate manner. This is because trauma disrupts the attachment of the child and their caregiver, especially with the sense of control, safety and security. Typically, children who suffer from traumatic stress symptoms have difficulty regulating their behaviours and emotions. Below is a list of common symptoms found in children exposed to traumatic experiences. Depending on their age, some might display a different extent of the symptoms:
Thankfully, there is support and assistance to help a child recover from exposure to traumatic experiences. Research has demonstrated that helping children build resilience is one of the most important and essential factors in protecting them against the adverse effects of trauma. This can only come from the primary caregivers, their relatives, the school and mental health professionals who are in contact with the child.
When young children experience a traumatic stressor, their instinctual response is usually to look for a sign or assurance from their primary caregivers or the adults who look after them. It is hence ok to talk about the experience or its aftermath as this will provide the necessary reassurance that the child can explore what happened and still be able to feel safe and secure without blaming themselves or others.
To be able to do this, the adults first must be able to identify and consider the subjective experiences of the child. And the best way to do so is to encourage them to talk about the situation without pressuring them. It is normal to experience emotional distress and other behavioural reactions following a traumatic event. The following strategies will help re-establish the security and stability for the children:
– Reassure the child of a safe environment where they can talk
– Answer their questions in language they can understand. This will help them develop an understanding of the events and changes that could happen later on in life
– Help the child develop their vocabulary with what happened, especially with their emotions. This is an important strategy as most adults with mental health issues who suffered from childhood trauma find it difficult to connect with or regulate their emotions, due to the inability to identify and verbalise their feelings.
– Develop a plan with them should the event happens again
– Engage in age-appropriate activities that help them to relax their mind and body
– Engage in fun, enjoyable and family activities that bring everyone together. This will help establish a social and supportive network for the child to learn of the available resources should they need to access in the future
– Set out routines, schedules and boundaries and assist the child to adhere to these with consistent practice
– Look out for changes in emotions and behaviours and provide the appropriate intervention. Contact professional help if necessary
– Be patient and show them love, care and affection
Not all children who are exposed to trauma go on to develop a full-blown psychological disorder or fail to find happiness in their life. This is because they receive the right support and assistance from their caregivers, whether they are the parents, the relatives, the school teachers, etc. The available help might not come at the right time, but is definitely available if the adults reach out should they are concerned with their children’s development.
We know how to be happy, no matter what. And it is even more important that we teach our children to recognise and develop this awareness.