Helping Children Recover from Trauma

This week I talked to a mom who watched her child go through a life-threatening trauma. I won’t get into the specifics because I don’t want her to re-live it, nor do I want to traumatize you all. But I will say that I do get these calls on the, thankfully, very rare occasion. (More thankfully than that, each and every time I’ve gotten those calls, including this one, the child has been fine: safe and whole, if terribly frightened and disturbed.)

Life is precarious. While our lives are so much more safe today than they have been historically…or are presently for millions of families around the world, or even our country, right now… we do have many dangers that we take for granted as we’ve become accustomed to and inured to the banality of living with them. I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day (The Office Ladies; yes I’m an Office nerd) and the hosts were talking about how in one of the scenes they shot they had a lit candle. A simple votive, and just one, held by one person. But, by law, they had to have a safety meeting before shooting the episode. For something as simple as a lit candle.

“That is real fire, everyone, on the set. Please be aware of your sleeves and elbows around the candle.”

In real life, though, we don’t have a safety meeting every single time we light candles or boil water or swim in the pool for the 100th time or wait by the car on a busy road or pull the knives out from the dishwasher…no, we just live life and most of the time, all of the time if we are lucky, nothing goes wrong.

But sometimes something does go wrong. In an instant. No, in a flash. Accidents happen…and accidents they are, despite the revisionist history you want to spin… “I could have, I should have, I usually…” Nope; accidents are “unfortunate incidents that happen unexpectedly and unintentionally.” If you could have prevented it, you would have.

Instead, all that is left is the aftermath…and that’s what I want to talk a little about today: how to help children recover from trauma. The thing is, it is very much tied into how we help children feel attached and connected, even outside of the scope of trauma. It’s the same types of things you do when you are helping children recover from a myriad of things…from separation at preschool to sadness over missing friends to tantrums and misbehavior.

The opening chapter in The Whole Brain Child begins with a classic story told by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson: Eea Woo Woo. It’s the story of a 2 year old who was riding in the car with her babysitter when her babysitter had a seizure and crashed. The child was fine, but understandably upset, but as the tears dried, he began to describe what happened to his mother, who rushed to the scene: Eea (Sophia, the babysitter’s name) woo woo (ambulance). It was a phrase he uttered many times over the next week or two…and each time he said the phrase, his mother would respond, “Yes, you and Sophia were in an accident, weren’t you?” And he would continue the story by miming her seizure. And his mother responded, helping him build the story: “Yes, Sophia had a seizure and started shaking and it crashed the car, didn’t it?” Eea woo woo… “Yes, the ambulance came and took her to the doctor. And she’s all better: we saw her yesterday, right?”

The temptation is to maybe skip to the end of that story (she’s all better) without going through the whole story. Or maybe even to change the subject perhaps, or to cajole and treat the child to something special whenever they bring up what happened or what’s bothering them…and it comes from the most loving and wholesome place: you want your child to feel better, you want to take their mind off the scary situation, you don’t want them to worry. There’s the fear that you are going to re-traumatize your child if you keep talking to them about what happened. But by doing that, you are leaving your child alone with those big scary emotions, instead of helping them make sense of them.

In fact, by allowing your child to repeat the story, and by telling the story together with them repeatedly, you can help your child really make sense of what happened and to integrate it into the story of their life. By responding this way, children will slowly stop repeating the story so frequently, as they process the fear they felt.

Of course, you also have to take care of your own mental health when your child has been through something traumatic…you, too, have been through something traumatic. Talking to someone about what happened, writing about it, crying, and forgiving yourself are all critically important to helping your child cope…helping neither of you to get stuck.

This simple and concise site gives a snapshot of behaviors you can expect from a child, 2-5, who has been through a trauma, as well as when to seek more help, and some resources.

Of course, one of the overarching goals of parenthood is to help children feel protected from and recover from traumas, big and small, and an important way for you to do that is to help children feel soothed. This idea comes from DJS and TPB also, from their book The Power of Showing Up…as promised, I’m rolling out the ideas in that book ssssssslowly…I started with the importance of helping children feel safe, then talked about their need to feel seen, and today I’ll talk about how and why to help them feel ‘soothed.’

“Soothing comes from joining. And joining comes from our being present. That’s how we show up to soothe” (p. 153). It simply means remaining openly aware and receptive to what is going on with a child, not just to what their behavior is, but what their behavior is telling us about their inner life. It goes back to attachment, which is formed when we see a need and respond to it, contingently…yes, the child feels seen and gets the message that you are there: “validating, assuring, identifying, and expressing empathy are all powerful ways to use words to help soothe someone” (p. 164). Using “more than words” (sorry, 90’s reference!), nonverbal communication, is powerful: facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, postures and gestures (going below a child’s eye level is a quick way for both adult and child to calm), as well as touch (when welcomed by the child) are also powerful ways to help children soothe.

As you all know, touch is an important element in the Educaring Approach…children learn more about you and what they should expect from the world by how you touch them than what you ever say to them. A touch on the arm, a hand on the back or shoulders, or a hug, can help your child come back to feeling soothed and comforted. Of course, for some being touched when upset is like adding gasoline to a fire…you know your child, your partner, yourself…and use touch to soothe accordingly.

When a child is upset…lashing out in anger or upset, or withdrawing in silence and sadness, we need to soothe them, help them to regulate before we try to educate, teach or discipline. Too often this get is seen as being ‘soft’ on a child, but it should never be construed as permissive parenting. It is more than possible to have both a loving relationship and boundaries…as the book says “it means you’re prizing the relationship, even when you’re addressing misbehavior” (p. 174). Remember that your goal as a parent is to raise someone who will be connected to others, who cares about others and the world, and the way they will learn to do that is through being connected to you, being cared for and about. Yes, there are lessons to teach and behaviors to correct, but you can do that, not only more effectively, but more compassionately, by staying connected to your child.

I love their example of dealing with a recalcitrant 7 year old who protested bedtime…instead of screaming “GO TO SLEEP ALREADY” (which, while VERY relatable, when you think about it logically, isn’t going to make him suddenly fall asleep), they suggest talking to him directly about his disappointment, make a plan for the next night, while tucking him into bed. Or take the irate toddler who is frustrated you won’t let them stand in the fridge to see if the light turns out…an irritated and irate “STOP CRYING” will likely not get you far (do YOU stop crying when that’s shouted at you?!), but a soothing response is actually more effective, both in your goal and even in time spent…“I hear you are disappointed. You really want to get in the fridge. I need to keep you safe, so I won’t let you, but I’ll stay right here as you calm down.”

I know, I know…you all are doing this, but the tantrums…they can last for sooooo long! I do know. You’re not doing anything wrong! It does get easier. You see, doing this consistently and repetitively teaches a child’s nervous system, over time, that in times of stress and overwhelm, they will be listened to and helped, which means they don’t get as worked up and recover faster. The “experience of having someone bear witness to her distress, then being comforted and connected, creates a sense of trust that opens the window to many inner mechanisms that heal pain, reduce distress, and build resilience. INTER-soothing is the gateway to personal INNER soothing” (p. 154).

What a powerful thought…that what you are doing right now, when you sit next to your crying baby, your screaming toddler, your melting down teenager…is not only helping them calm in this moment, on this day, but is helping them become stronger, more stable people in the future. What a gift.

Wishing you a soothing weekend,


As always, a reading from The Parents’ Tao Te Ching…and I promise, I opened the book at random to this one!!

60. Growing a Garden

Dealing with difficult children
is like watching a garden grow.
Resist the temptation
to pull up the plants
to check on the roots.

In difficult times
children may thrive on conflict.
If you take the bait
the battle rages.
Instead step back,
breathe deeply,
and stay at your center.
Battle requires two parties.
One fighting alone soon tires.
Are there times when,
despite all efforts,
you must impose your will?
Of course.
But remember,
those times are far fewer
than you can imagine.
Is this current battle really necessary?