EARLY TRAUMA TREATMENT NETWORK

AFTER A CRISIS: HOW YOUNG CHILDREN HEAL

Young children, toddlers, and preschoolers know when bad things happen, and they remember what they have been through. After a scary event, we often see changes in their behavior. They may cry more, become clingy and not want us to leave, have temper tantrums, hit others, have problems sleeping, become afraid of things that didn’t bother them before, and lose skills they previously mastered. Changes like these are a sign that they need help. Here are some ways you can help them.

 

SAFETY FIRST—YOUR YOUNG CHILD FEELS SAFE WHEN YOU

• Hold your child or let them stay close to you.

• Tell your child you will take care of them when things are scary or difficult. With children who are learning to talk, use simple words, like saying “Daddy’s here.”

• Keep them away from frightening TV images and scary conversations.

• Do familiar things, like singing a song you both like or telling a story.

• Let them know what will happen next (to the degree that you know).

• Have a predictable routine, at least for bedtime: a story, a prayer, cuddle time.

• Leave them with familiar people when you have to be away.

• Tell them where you are going and when you will come back.

 

ALLOW EXPRESSION OF FEELINGS

• Young children often “behave badly” when they are worried or scared. Children can “act out” as a way of asking for help. Remember! Difficult feelings=Difficult behavior.

• Help your child name how they feel: “scared,” “happy,” “angry,” “sad.” Tell them it’s OK to feel that way.

• Show your child the right way to behave, like saying “It’s OK to be angry but it’s not OK to hit me.”

• Help your child express anger in ways that won’t hurt, using words, play, or drawings.

• Talk about the things that are going well to help you and your child feel good.

 

FOLLOW YOUR CHILD’S LEAD

• Different children need different things. Some children need to run around, others need to be held.

• Listen to your child and watch their behavior to figure out what they need.

 

ENABLE YOUR CHILD TO TELL THE STORY OF WHAT HAPPENED DURING & AFTER

• Having a story helps your child make sense of what happened and cope better with it.

• Children use play to tell their story. For example, they may make popping sounds to show what they experienced. They may hide in the closest to show what it was like to shelter-in-place.

• Join your child in showing and telling not only what happened, step by step, but also how you both felt.

• As you tell the story, follow your child’s lead. When
the story is difficult, your young child may need breaks: running around, being held, playing something else. This is OK. They will come back to the story when they are ready.

• It can be hard to watch your children’s play or listen to their stories of what happened. Get support if it is too hard for you to listen without becoming upset.

 

TIES—RECONNECT WITH SUPPORTIVE PEOPLE, COMMUNITY, CULTURE & RITUALS

• Simple things like a familiar bedtime story, a song,
a prayer, or family traditions remind you and your child of your way of life and offer hope.

• If you belong to a group, like a church, try to find ways of reconnecting with them.

• You can help your child best when you take care
of yourself. Get support from others when you need it.

 

YOUR CHILD NEEDS YOU

• Reassure your child that you will be together

• It is common for children to be clingy and worried about being away from you.

• Just being with your child, even when you can’t fix things, helps your child.

• If you need to leave your child, let them know for how long and when you are coming back. If possible, leave something that belongs to you, or a picture that your child can have.

 

Child Trauma Research Program University of California, San Francisco
For more information go to NCTSN.org or Childparentpsychotherapy.com | Chandra Ghosh Ippen, Alicia F. Lieberman, & Patricia Van Horn, 2005

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