Trauma: Supporting your Child

Trauma can occur when a child experiences an event or ongoing situation that is very distressing or frightening. ‘Big T’ traumas involve life-threatening events and include exposure to domestic violence or war, and experiences of neglect, abuse, or being bullied. ‘Little t’ traumas encompass traumatic events that are not life-threatening but create significant distress. Examples include exposure to frequent arguments in the home and ‘failing’ to live up to the standards of parents.
A child’s age and stage of development, the nature and frequency of traumatic events, and the availability of caregiver support can affect how a child experiences and later copes with trauma. Understanding the brain-body connection is essential before attempting to offer support to children who have experienced trauma.
The brain is composed of three main parts. The brainstem is responsible for vital bodily functions like breathing and heart rate.  The limbic system recognizes threats and automatically activates a trauma response to keep the child safe. These two parts make up the emotional brain. The cortical or thinking brain is the site of logic, reasoning, and control.  It shuts down when the emotional brain detects danger.
The four main trauma responses are fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. These responses are very helpful when a child is in danger (e.g., avoiding a threatening adult) but they are unhelpful in safe situations (e.g., withdrawing from a caregiver when there is no threat or danger). Children who have experienced trauma cannot control how they behave when their brain perceives danger. Behaviours such as crying, lashing out, or avoiding situations are a child’s way of communicating the need for physical and emotional safety. These behaviours are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and are triggered by big feelings ‘under the surface’ that children have not learned to manage.
Trauma responses can impact children’s relationships as they might withdraw from, or lash out at, others. Children who have experienced trauma can experience sensory overload and might refuse physical touch or appear jumpy even when they are safe. They may have difficulty understanding, expressing and managing their feelings. Trauma can cause attention difficulties in school as the emotional brain is using all the available resources trying to keep the child safe. Unresolved trauma can also influence how a child sees themselves in the long term, as they come to believe their emotions are ‘too much’ or they are ‘not good enough’ for others.
To support the development of children who have experienced trauma, it is important to create a safe environment, develop a trusting relationship, teach the child strategies for managing big emotions, and help them to build resilience. Caregivers often have questions about how to best support a child who has experienced trauma.
This article was contributed by Shauna Hill from the Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Service. The service is part of Parenting Limerick.