How to Respond to Your Child's Needs After a Trauma
Traumatized children have specialized needs. As a parent you play the most critical part in your child’s successful return to the way he was before the trauma. It is important that you know how to respond to his needs.Those needs may be temporary or can last for some time.
Keep in mind that the following suggestions may go against your instinctive reactions to respond to your child's needs. The foremost need of any traumatized child is to feel safe. As an adult your ability to reason tells you when imminent danger is over. Children do not have the same reasoning ability. They must experience you and their environment as safe and as such will engage in behaviors to help themselves feel safe. They need you, their parent, to not only know this but help them with feeling safe by your behavior as well as your reassurance. For example, if the only way your child can fall asleep is in the corner of a room, your parental instinct is likely to urge you to pull your child out of that corner and take him to his bed. Your traumatized child will interpret (and rightly so) that you do not understand his need to feel safe. The corner is his “safe place.” If he feels that you don’t understand, not only can’t he trust you, his need for safety will increase and likely bring about more difficult behaviors.
He needs to know that you know he needs to feel safe. This example illustrates what he needs for you to say and do, “Okay honey, if that is where you feel the safest right now let’s make it more comfortable for you. Let me bring you your pillow (and other familiar objects)." You might even say, "Why don’t I spend a night with you here in your corner.” It might help to ask your child what would help him feel the safest.
This response will let your child know he’s not scaring you and you don’t think he’s abnormal after what happened. More than anything else you want him to feel safe. Once he sees you helping him, sees you’re on his side, he can be less frightened, less worried (hypervigilant) that something else is going to happen. As he feels safer in your presence, he'll eventually be able to return to his bed on his own.
This is just one example of how important it is for you, as a parent, to understand your child's specific needs and engage in responses that may sometimes feel like you’re encouraging the problem. You are, in fact, helping him get past the problem. Following exposure to a traumatic incident it is only normal to worry that something else might happen again to yourself or someone close to you. An excellent question to ask your child is, "Since this happened what is your biggest worry?" Do not analyze or try to interpret his response. It is what it is. Acknowledge that it is a scary worry and that you will do what you can to prevent it, but even if something else does happen you will be there to keep him safe. This is not always easy, but it is what children expect from parents.
If this does not help, you need the help of a trauma specialist who can give you the knowledge and training so you can be helpful. New problems demand new responses. When it comes to trauma it is important to learn new ways to best help your child through his terrifying experience. Working with a trauma specialist will greatly improve your child's opportunity to recover and return to being the child he was before the trauma.