What is a trauma for a child? Traumas are different for children and adults. The results or symptoms may be the same or different. What is a big trauma for a child may be a little trauma for an adult. A traumatic loss of a loved one for an adult might elicit very little response in a child. Most children who are confronted with a feeling or experience that is too painful, fearful, or overwhelming will tend to regress to childish behaviors and into a more secure and well-defended attitude. Remember, what is traumatic for a child may or may not be traumatic to a parent. Even adults differ dramatically in their response to trauma. Some holocaust victims committed suicide, while others used their energies to deal with their day-to-day situation and survived. More recently, the California earthquake of January 1994 that terrified many people left some saying, It was nothing. Some of us will not become afraid, or we will deny feelings almost completely.
How does the child show symptoms of trauma? Children show the effects of trauma and an illness called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in a variety of ways. Some of the symptoms appear internally and some appear externally. Oftentimes, children who have suffered from a trauma will complain that they can’t stop thinking about what happened. They may have recurring dreams, nightmares, or memories of the event. Sometimes, they begin to fear things associated with the trauma. A child who was bitten by a dog may become abnormally afraid when a dog barks in the neighborhood. A child caught in a flood may become extremely fearful or very anxious on a cloudy day. A child involved in a car accident may become extremely tense riding in a car. In all these cases, the child is in no immediate danger, but feels the anxiety intensely, as if he or she were. Children can become overly alert and tense, or “hypervigilant.” They show adult reactions in addition to being more dependent or withdrawn.
What can a parent do to help a traumatized child? The most important response a parent can have is awareness that the child has been traumatized. Listen to the child and give parental reassurance. Following the California earthquake of January 1994, many children of all ages began to sleep in their parents’ beds again. Although this response is usually frowned upon by professionals, in this circumstance the comfort of the child as well as the parent was of paramount importance; therefore, the behavior was allowable for a short period of time. However, if several months pass and the child still shows the signs of trauma, as described in the initial part of this chapter, parents might be wise to consult a professional to evaluate the situation.
What is essential in parents’ behavior? A child or adult who has been traumatized needs comforting. For a child, it may mean cuddling and reassuring him or her that all will be well and that he or she will be fine. These simple behaviors are sometimes overlooked with children who are very quiet. Sometimes just being there or sitting with a child is what counts. Try to be aware of the messages your child sends to you.