Q. I recently left a bad relationship in which I was abused. I thought my kids (3, 7 and 13) were tough and would bounce right back. But friends have suggested I seek therapy for them. How can I tell if they are traumatized, and how can I help them?
A. Many children experience traumatic events. The American Psychological Association (apa.org) found more than two thirds of kids reported in community samples that they had experienced a traumatic event before age 16. Many children reported more than one.
What is a traumatic event? The APA defines it as an event that “threatens injury, death or physical integrity of self or others and causes horror, terror or helplessness at the time it occurs.” Some traumatic events might be physical abuse, school violence, bullying, sexual abuse, neglect, medical trauma, serious illness in loved ones, separation from loved ones, being homeless, unpredictable caregiver behavior due to mental illness or addiction, car accident, disaster or loss of loved ones—including pets as well as people.
Some children bounce back, and some don’t. Symptoms vary by age group. Kids under 5 tend to show fussiness or reluctance to explore. Children 5-12 tend to be quiet or withdrawn, want to be left alone, have frequent physical complaints or often appear sad. Preteens and teens engage in risky behaviors, run away or refuse to follow rules. They may be irritable. They can lose interest in things. They may have a decline in school work.
Here are some suggestions for how you can help your children:
1. Provide structure to the day. Have a set time for meals, homework, chores and playtime. A predictable schedule helps a child feel a sense of control. Let children know if their schedule will be different on any day.
2. Be alert to cues that your child wants hugs and kisses or doesn’t want physical contact, and follow those cues. Avoid making demands for kisses or hugs.
3. Have rules and set reasonable consequences for breaking them. Let your children help make the rules, and post important ones so the kids can understand and comply.
4. Model calmness. Hold your anxieties and fears in check. Avoid yelling at the children. If you are out of control, your kids will feel out of control and may mimic your out-of-control behavior.
5. Interact with your children. Draw, play board games or have a picnic at the park. These activities make you available if they want to talk, and it’s comforting that you are near.
6. Listen when your kids want to talk about the traumatic event. Younger children may tend to blame themselves, and if they do, you can help them move toward a realistic view. Assure them that they can always talk with you, and you will help them understand or figure out what to do.
7. Avoid new romances. Also avoid friends who expect or demand a lot of your time or put you down.
8. Get professional help for yourself, particularly if you find yourself unable to cope with the children, unable to enforce rules, unable to stay calm or wanting to get into another relationship without healing from the last one.
While some kids may get past a traumatic event without therapy, it’s hard for a parent to know if they will or won’t, so why not seek help? There are many child therapists in Austin and surrounding communities. If you don’t have insurance or money for therapy, you can use a computer search engine to look for “low cost mental health services for children in Austin Texas.”
Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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