Resilience means “bouncing back” from adversity. The primary factor in resilience is having supportive and caring relationships that include trust, love, dependability, healthy role models, encouragement, and reassurance. Nurturing relationships between parents and children have the power to help and heal.
Parents offer a sense of safety. Children who have experienced various kinds of trauma typically do not believe the world is safe or that adults will protect them. Promoting a sense of safety reduces the alarm reactions in their brains and emotions, and changes those negative beliefs.
Exposure to trauma makes children feel out of control. They crave structure and a stable environment. All children need calm and caring caregivers, but especially traumatized children. Remaining calm when they are agitated and teaching calming techniques reduces the anxiety and emotional arousal that affects their mood, sleep, and concentration.
Children need to learn that adults can be dependable, caring, patient, and loving, to counteract the negative messages some children received in the past. Parents can become their secure base by being emotionally available, sensitive, responsive, and helpful. To do so means you have to be able to effectively manage your own feelings and stress, not take your child’s negative behavior personally, and “look in the mirror” (self awareness).
The following tips for parents will facilitate trust, help and healing:
• Talk with your child: Communication builds trust and is a constructive coping skill to learn. Find times they are most likely to talk; start the conversation— let them know you are interested.
• Listen: Listen to their thoughts, feelings, and points of view with empathy and understanding—don’t interrupt, judge, or criticize; this opens the door to a healing relationship.
• Accept feelings: Anxiety, irritability, anger, and depression are normal reactions to loss and trauma and will subside over time in a safe environment.
• Be patient and supportive: It takes time to come to terms with trauma and grieve losses. Each child’s path to recovery is unique; offer comfort and reassurance and be available when they are ready.
• Encourage healthy expression: Children act out distress negatively without constructive outlets. Foster the use of talking, art, play, music, dance, sports, journaling, and other healthy methods of emotional expression.
• Maintain consistency: Structure and routines enhance security and stability. Provide appropriate rules, expectations, boundaries, and consequences. Hold children accountable.
• Promote a sense of control: Children feel helpless and powerless in response to trauma. Help them feel empowered and believe they can successfully deal with challenges via constructive activities (e.g., hobbies, sports, clubs, volunteering) and persevering towards success.
• Make home a safe place: Your home should be a “safe haven,” a place of comfort, security and peace. Stress, anger and chaos trigger traumatic reactions; minimize conflict and provide discipline with calmness and love.
• Foster new beliefs: Some children were taught to hide their emotions and protect themselves from hurtful adults. Give these children a safe context to share their feelings, problem-solve, and establish trust by offering “listening time” and “family sharing time.” New beliefs are created via new social experiences.
• Be honest: Children make up their own stories if adults don’t help them understand the truth. Honesty is essential, but keep in mind their age and emotional ability; avoid details that could re-traumatize them. When you are honest with a child the meta-message is: “You are strong and capable; I know you can handle the truth.”
• Help with trauma stories: Children are asking for help when they tell their stories; listen, be supportive, help them “make sense” of what happened. Send the message it was not their fault (children often blame themselves for maltreatment), and help them understand their feelings. When children share their trauma stories with supportive and safe adults they learn to face their fears and begin to heal (from victim to overcomer mindset).
• Advocate for ongoing connections: It takes time to build trust; children should remain with the same caregivers over time (e.g., daycare workers, foster parents, teachers). The “looping” model in schools keeps young children with the same teacher for two years.
• Don’t take it personally: Children can “push your buttons.” You are less likely to be angry, anxious, or over-react if you know your triggers—then you can remain calm and respond in a helpful way. “Look in the mirror” – be aware of your emotions, mindset, self-talk, family history, body signals and coping strategies.
• Focus on the positive: Notice and praise positive behavior; “catch your child doing something right.” Have fun, laugh—humor reduces tension and creates connection. Playing is a great way to reduce stress and bond.
• Limit media: TV, movies, and video games may be frightening and over-stimulating; monitor and supervise based on your child’s needs and reactions. Research shows that traumatized and angry children are at increased risk for aggression after viewing violent media.
• Be aware of body language: Your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language communicate more than your words. Show via nonverbal messages that you are safe, understanding and dependable.
• Change perspective: You cannot change the fact that tragic events happened, but you can change how you interpret and respond to those events. Help children accept what can’t be changed and focus on the things that can be changed. Encourage a change in self-perception from “victim” to “overcomer.”
• Have an “opportunity mindset”: People often grow and evolve following tragedy and hardship—better relationships, self-worth, inner strength, spirituality, and appreciation for life (“posttraumatic growth”). Help children use their difficult and painful experiences as a springboard to learn and grow.
• Inspire a sense belonging: Being a part of a family and community
enhances children’s security, identity and loyalty. Traditions and rituals
increase their sense of belonging (e.g., celebrate birthdays, holidays,
cultural customs and practices). We are social animals and children need to feel connected.
• Volunteer as a family: Charitable actions turns pain into something positive, creates a sense of purpose and control (“I can make a difference”), and leads to reclaiming hope. Assisting others also benefits the helper.
• Avoid labels: Labeling a child can have negative consequences. For example, the boy or girl labeled “problem child” has to deal with other’s negative expectations and attitudes. When children see themselves as bad they tend to act bad.
• Take care of yourself: Stay healthy (mind-body-spirit-relationships) so that you can take good care of your children. Provide a healthy role model of self-care and stress management— eat well, exercise, get plenty of rest and support, avoid alcohol and drugs, do yoga, meditation, and spiritual practices, show children that problems do have solutions, surround yourself with friends and family that are kind, loving and live by positive values. Parents who openly and honestly confront and resolve their issues have more fulfilling lives and create a healthy environment for their children.