How to Help Kids Cope with Trauma
Sometimes, the hardest part about being a parent is the things you can’t do.
The past year has shown every family how powerless we are as parents to protect our children from trauma and stress. Even if your family was lucky enough to avoid serious illness or loss from the COVID-19 pandemic, your children experienced disruptive routine changes and isolation as they transitioned to online or hybrid school. And now, just as things are starting to get “back to normal,” one of the largest fires in our state’s history is raging just a few counties away. This year is underscoring the reality that we as parents can’t prevent frightening things from happening in our children’s lives.
And even if life does get back to normal over the next few months, that transition can be challenging, too. Going back to in-person school will be stressful for kids who’ve been learning online or hybrid for most of the past year. In addition to the stress of re-learning how to interact socially, kids need to re-learn how to get up and out of the house instead of rolling over and turning on the computer, how to manage a long day of school and after-school activities, and how to keep up with homework and motivate themselves after a long day at school. Plus, they’re doing all this in the middle of a pandemic that still hasn’t ended — most kids still can’t get vaccinated, and the possibility of more lockdowns and school shutdowns still hangs over their heads.
But even though we can’t prevent stressful situations in our kids’ lives, we can help them cope.
Here’s how parents can help children manage trauma and stress.
Keep your routine
Maintain your family routines as much as you can. Routines can give kids a feeling of security and reliability, so they can help kids feel safer in the middle of transition and stress. Even if it’s not possible to keep all your daily routines, aim for weekly routines. Even something as simple as a family board game night every Friday can help your kids feel more secure and give them a routine to look forward to.
Now more than ever, it’s obvious to parents – and probably to kids, too – that we can’t always keep our families safe from danger. But as parents, we can create a sense of emotional safety for our kids, even in dangerous situations. Do this by listening and validating their emotions. Give kids a chance to talk about what they’re feeling about scary events in the world, whether it’s the fear of going back to school and not being able to connect with friends or the fear of having to evacuate because of fire. Help your kids find words to express their emotions, and validate that those feelings make sense.
Just listening can be difficult – when your kids talk about stressful feelings, your instinct is to want to fix it. But telling kids that it’s not as bad as it feels, or trying to convince them to feel better, can actually make them feel worse. Instead, try to just validate their feelings by saying something simple like “That sounds really hard” or “It sounds like you feel really scared.” Instead of offering solutions, give your kids space to feel negative emotions – and then give them the time to come up with their own solutions to the problem.
Grieving is an important piece of processing stress and trauma, but it’s one that we often try to gloss over. There are few things more painful than seeing your child cry, but grieving – and sometimes crying – is an essential step in accepting when bad or scary things have happened. Kids can process emotions in lots of different ways, so encourage them to express their feelings in whatever way feels best for them. That might mean crying and cuddling together, or it might mean drawing pictures or reliving scary experiences with toys. Even though it can be scary to let your kids revisit frightening or upsetting experiences, the truth is that feeling those negative feelings is essential to processing them.
Encourage good boundaries
For kids, traumatic experiences often involve having their boundaries violated. Feeling scared can also cause kids to struggle with defining good boundaries; they might want lots of space and independence one minute and want to be coddled the next. You can help your kids process by modeling and teaching good boundaries. Teach them to recognize when they’re feeling stressed or angry, and tell them that anger is often a sign their emotional boundary is being crossed. Encourage them to tell you (with words!) what they’re feeling and to ask for what they need.
Teaching kids to enforce their own boundaries is difficult, because most of the time, they’ll practice this skill first on you. But as a parent, it’s your job to be a safe space to practice these kinds of interpersonal skills – even if it’s uncomfortable for you. So when your kids ask you for space, model respect for their boundaries. It might feel like you’re giving up on connecting with them, but in the long run, your relationship will be stronger for it.
Empower them to find solutions
Instead of offering solutions, ask your kids questions that will help them create their own solutions. If they’re worried about seeing their friends in person again, help them role-play what might happen and what they want to say on the first day of school. Encourage them to think through the “worst-case scenario” and how they would handle it. Even though the worst-case probably won’t happen, it can help kids feel better to make a plan for it.
Tell the truth
When your child is struggling, it’s a natural instinct to reassure them that “everything is going to be okay.” But the truth is, you can never be certain about the future. You don’t know for sure if the pandemic is going to go away, or if the fire isn’t going to spread. Instead, tell your kids the truth: that their feelings are valid and allowed, that you’ll always support them no matter what, and that you love them.
There are many things you can’t do as a parent. You can’t prevent bad things from happening, and you can’t control the future. But you can love and support your children unconditionally – and ultimately, that’s enough.