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How parents can help their kids build resilience through times of trauma

How parents can help their kids build resilience through times of trauma

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Our children have never known the uncertainty of a global crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic. Collectively, it is our nature to pick ourselves up and forge on.

However, this trauma and its rippling effects of limited socialization and in-person interactions continue to add to this real life-threat. The question then becomes, what can parents do to help children process the trauma and begin to heal?

By definition, emotional and psychological trauma occurs when a catastrophic or stressful event threatens our safety or makes us feel helpless. Stress on a continuum becomes trauma. In response to this perceived threat, our nervous system reacts to the trigger in three ways — fight, flight or freeze (none of which help support co-regulation, trust and flexibility).

Children need routine and predictability to feel safe. Without a parent or caregiver who can offer safety and emotional stability for the child, unhealthy coping mechanisms may begin to form. It's important to work with kids and teens to overcome trauma, as it can present a barrier to day-to-day living on its own or in conjunction with physical, mental or emotional challenges. Some trauma behaviors to keep an eye on include:

• Eating and/or sleep disturbances

• School/learning challenges

• Separation anxiety/clinginess

• Difficulty with social interactions/maintaining friendships

• Developmental regression

• Easily frightened

• Language delays

• Aggressive behavior

Trauma symptoms frequently fade after a few weeks or months as we — both adults and children — process the event. But even after we feel better, there are residual triggers that take us back to the memories of the event. Triggers can be sights, sounds, smells, the anniversary of the event or a myriad of other emotions and feelings. Sudden flashbacks are typical and expected to happen.

Additionally, unresolved childhood trauma often spills into feelings of fear, helplessness and insecurity later in life. All of which is a recipe for additional trauma to occur. While childhood trauma can be overcome years after the fact, there are ways to curb its lasting impact.

So how can parents help? By being more aware of the emotional needs of their children. The negative impact of trauma can be counteracted when parents have a healing, therapeutic relationship with their children. Not only does it help them work through the current trauma, but it also helps them become more resilient adults.

Below are more tips for trauma recovery:

• Allow for vulnerability, ask for help, and know that you are not alone.

• Be gentle on yourself and your children.

• Scale expectations based on the individual differences within your family members.

• Think of trauma as a temporary injury rather than a permanent scar.

• Everyone heals at a different pace. Give yourself and others the time they need. 

• Allow yourself to feel your emotions, without pushing them aside or stuffing them deep inside. They aren’t doing you any good there!

• Grieve your losses. Whether they are physical or the sense of your safety, grief is the natural reaction to loss and moves us forward as survivors.

• Healing for children begins at their level. Literally. Lowering your body to their height or below reduces the level of their big emotions. Mindful actions like this permit the establishment of connection and security, which is what kids need most.

• Stay connected. Traumatic events, especially those involving quarantine and social distancing, often cause humans to withdraw, but isolation makes it worse.

• Seek help for trauma for yourself, your child, or family if symptoms and behaviors don’t subside. When children are concerned, relationship-based occupational therapy can be useful for families because it involves role-playing, physical activities, and bonding through shared experiences.

It’s important to note there are no “right” or “wrong” ways to respond to trauma. It is an individual experience, so comparing your reactions to those of others isn’t a healthy path forward. Focusing on the effectiveness of your responses and those of our children is what propels us into more secure and connected relationships.

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Larry Zier, OTD, OTR/L, owner of Zier Institute in Omaha, is an expert in the areas of sensory integration, emotional regulation and is certified in the DIR/Floortime approach. His passion is working with children, teens and families, helping them to achieve their highest potential physically, emotionally and socially. As a father himself, he strongly believes in the role of family involvement, as well as collaboration with caregivers, teachers and other professionals, as integral to a child’s growth and overall success. For more information, email larry@zierinstitute.com, call 402-933-2882 or visit their Facebook.

Omaha World-Herald: Momaha

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