Whenever a child is suffering, adults want to do whatever they can to help. Unfortunately, much of what adults consider “helping” actually makes things much worse.
This page was created to provide an outline of the more important concepts for caregivers to follow in the initial aftermath of a traumatic event. It is by no means an exhaustive examination of the subject. If you’re serious about helping kids overcome a difficult experience, we strongly recommend you get our eBook Childhood Trauma & Recovery, which provides detailed advice on helping children, including therapeutic techniques and healing exercises you can do with a traumatized child. It’s just $9.99, and all proceeds from your purchase go to help kids in need. In the meantime, here are some basics to get you started:
How to help kids recover from trauma
Here’s the most important thing for caregivers to understand: Most traumas come and go without leaving any residual physical problems. There are a few cases where trauma creates some sort of persisting detriment (such as something that paralyzes a child or results in the death of someone they love), but most will not. Even a child who is sh_t and survives typically emerges with a nasty scar but otherwise fully in tact. Which means once an event is over and done with, its only power to continue to harm your child comes in the form of the ideas and residual conflicts kept alive in a child’s mind. Occasionally these lingering psychological effects are a direct result of the traumatic memory, but more often than not they come from ideas added to the situation. It isn’t the experience itself that causes lasting injury, but the way we come to think about a given experience and the manner in which we weave it into the narrative of our lives.
This means your most crucial job is to help a child relate to this experience in a way that heals any resentment they might feel, rather than keeping the pain alive. Your explanations of what occurred, the ideas and messages you promote, whether you take a condemning stance versus one that promotes compassion, whether you adopt a victim mentality or foster resilience, whether or not you inflate the significance of a given experience and pump it full of stigma–these things matter far more in the overall harm equation than what a child actually experienced. Unfortunately, this is also the part of the equation most adults mess up.
Typically when something bad happens to a child, adults react in a harsh and judgmental way. They condemn rather than explain, and seek to judge rather than understand. They adopt a ‘good guy/bad guy’ mentality to explain hurtful deeds, portraying the world in terms of good and evil. They act as though hurt is intentional as opposed to an unfortunate byproduct of competing interests and different perspectives. They seek to persecute and destroy rather than model compassion.
They inflate the significance of the event, portraying it as a horribly unspeakable thing that insults the natural laws of the universe. They engage in a lot of moralizing about what occurred, which all too frequently adds to the stigma a child feels. They preach ideas that lead to fear, bitterness, a sense of victimization, feelings of betrayal, and alienation from others. They promote anger, hatred, condemnation and retribution. In short, they embrace humanity’s darker angels, which is certainly understandable considering the emotions they’re feeing, but it’s also just about the worst thing they could possibly do.
Nothing good can ever come by embracing the dark side, and it certainly doesn’t help kids heal. When adults react in a way that promotes a sense of victimization–fostering hatred, vengeance, alienation, stigma, judgment, or persecution of others–they are taking what could otherwise be isolated and short-lived pain and replacing it with harmful ideas that are likely to haunt a child well into the future. You might as well put in a call to Darth Vader and have him come over with his light saber to slice apart your child’s soul.
It’s in a child’s nature to be inherently optimistic and forgiving. They want to see the good in others. They want to seek reconciliation and unity as opposed to creating division. They want to give people second chances; along with third, fourth, and fifth ones too, if necessary. They also don’t go around attaching symbolic meaning to the things they endure. In fact, in many ways their response to adversity is far healthier than the way adults respond. But they also readily absorb whatever vibe their caretakers put out, and so when adults fill their head with harsh, unforgiving, adult-centric world views, they drink this poison without hesitation.
Not only does such a philosophy prevent healing from the trauma at hand, but it lays down a piss-poor template for reacting to pain going forward. Learning to be bitter and hateful when others wrong us is not a very good template for life. Nor is it very practical to seek “justice” (which is really just a feel-good term we use to describe acts of vengeance), when 95% of the serious hurts that occur in this world are not subject to legal penalties. And the harsher we judge others, the harsher we tend to be on ourselves. So when you promote an unforgiving, judgmental stance toward life’s imperfections, you’re setting a child up to be a greater critic of themselves, and to interpret life on harsher terms.