When life coach Thomas Gagliano put his dog to sleep, he was worried about how his seven-year-old would deal with the news. He mentions the episode in his book, The Problem Was Me. Upon returning from the vet, the son simply said, “I’m fine,” and Gagliano walked out of the room. But he returned a minute later and hugged him hard. The son broke down, crying with heaves and gasps. Gagliano says, “Sometimes, a child just needs to know that there is a safe space, where he can cry. My arms were that safe place.”

In the book, Gagliano also introduces parents to an inner critic—an inner voice—that tells us we didn’t deserve to be happy, and hence bad things happen. It tells you to be fearful of intimacy, as it will only lead to pain.

What Parents Must Do:

  • Learn how to silence this voice, which usually stems from a traumatic incident in the past. When dealing with children, it’s even more important to deal with traumas that could possibly affect their adulthood. “A parent needs to be able to tell a child that he will make mistakes, but that doesn’t make his existence a mistake. We need to teach kids that it is okay to fail, without feeling like a failure,” says the author.
  • Colorado-based therapist Gennifer Morley, who is a practitioner of play therapy for grief counseling, explains that dealing with a child depends on his or her age, and the traumatic event. In case of death or a violent event, professional support is the ideal first step.
  • Research the different types of play therapy, as well as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which helps erase the memories associated with the trauma. It also allows children to develop adaptive coping mechanisms.

For parents and caregivers who want to support a child through a tough time, Morley suggests an age-wise strategy:

Ages 2 to 7

  • Very young children will often tell the story of the event over and over. It can feel instinctive to a caregiver to re-direct the child, but really the child’s insistence on recounting the story is their effort to make peace with it. If you find your child re-telling a story, listen carefully.
  • Help them fill in the pieces that are missing.
  • Validate any expression of fear or sadness, and gently remind them how the experience ended. For example, “And then I came and got you, picked you up and gave you a kiss.”
  • Emphasizing deep breaths will help the child regulate their nervous system, while they recount the events.
  • Relaxing after we are aroused to fight or flight, is easier when we move. For these reasons, you may find it helpful to get the child moving after recounting the story. Running, playing, or creating art will help the child calm down. Eventually, the child will make peace with the event.

Ages 8 to 15

  • At around eight or nine, children begin to discuss events in an organized and accurate way, which is more relative to the adult world. Do not force a discussion at any age, but do bring it up.
  • If your child is not open to talking to you, allow them to talk to somebody they can confide in. This might include a grandparent, or a trusted family friend, or a professional. No matter who they choose, have a word with the person before your child meets them.
  • The conversation itself should cover the sequence of events. Sometimes children make up stories for parts of an event that they are unsure of. Often the parts they make up are more frightening than the real story. Once the story is recounted, ask directly what they think will help them feel safe moving forward.
  • Check in again in a few months. Caregivers should consider the extent to which they are affected by the trauma as well.
  • In the process, don’t forget to look after yourself as well.

If your child’s behavior and discussions make it apparent that they are still struggling, or you yourself feel overwhelmed, seek the help of a family member, or opt for professional help. There are some wonderful, knowledgeable folks out there, ready to help you and your child in navigating trauma.

Read More:
Explaining Tragic News To Your Child
Getting Kids To Unplug: Parenting Tips For The Wired Generation
How To Keep Your Kids Safe On The Wild Wild Web

 

An alumnus of Asian College of Journalism, and Cardiff University, Wales, Yoshita Sengupta has more than five years of experience in writing for various news outlets. As Founder and Director of Underscore, a content solutions agency, she writes for multiple digital and print news outlets and consults brands. When not working for Underscore, she works with social entrepreneurs and homeless communities, which includes running a library for street children.