Is that child just “acting up” or is it trauma?

I believe that every child is a gift. I especially agree with my own three children. They have been an amazing blessing in my life and I am so proud to be their mum.

Nothing in life really prepares you to be a parent. Sure when you are pregnant you can read all of the parenting help books or talk to health nurses, but really you are never quite prepared when that little baby is placed in your arms. Suddenly you realize that no one, but you is responsible for this living and breathing little person. It’s life depends on you. Wow what a profound moment that was for me.

As a parent I have always wanted the best for my children. It is hard when life and what you want doesn’t always match up. My oldest was born in 2001 and for the first 9 years of her life we lived with her father. Unfortunately for her, her younger siblings and myself their father was an abuser. Abuse of many forms was prevalent throughout our house and this affected each of my children in different ways. We have dealt with PTSD diagnoses, OCD tendencies, nightmares, wetting of beds, soiling of pants, disassociation, violent outbursts and yes some substance abuse. None of this is what I wanted for them. It has been heartbreaking as a mum to watch my children struggle and it has been debilitating to them at various times of their life. This is definitely not the life I wanted for my children.

Despite all of the trials my children and I have always been a team. I have let them know from the moment that they were born that I will always be there for them. With every cry in the night  to cheering them on at their band concert at school I have been there.  I have worked hard to be their safety and their constant despite the turbulent beginning years of their life. When my ex and I finally separated, my kids and I shared my Queen size bed for months. We all had our spot on the bed and perhaps it was not the most comfortable of sleeps as we all crammed in, but we were together, we were safe and that was the most important thing.

Kids experience trauma in different ways than an adult. For one their brains are still developing so trauma affects their brain development. Children also have different ways then adults on how they express their trauma. If you have an infant, toddler or a preschooler you may observe;

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Disturbances in feeding
  • Feelings of helplessness and passivity
  • Generalized fearfulness
  • Specific new fears
  • Loss of or regression in recently acquired skills like walking, talking or potty training.
  • Clinginess and separation anxiety.
  • Inhibited play
  • Thinking or talking about the event
  • Upset at reminders or avoiding reminders of the event.
  • Irritability
  • Agressiveness
  • Scanning for danger
  • Easily startled

If you have school age children you might observe;

  • Posttraumatic play. This kind of play is a repetitive reenactment of the event
  • Thinking and talking about trauma outside of play
  • Being upset about reminders of the event.
  • Specific fears triggered by the event
  • Fantasies of revenge
  • Feeling guilty about the trauma and feeling responsible for it
  • Impaired concentration and difficulty learning
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Headaches, stomach aches and other physical symptoms
  • Concerns about theirs and others safety
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawn behaviour

If you have an adolescent you might observe;

  • Detachment, shame guilt
  • Self conscious about their fears and intense feelings
  • Abrupt shifts in relationships
  • Desire for and plans to take revenge
  • Premature entrance into adulthood or reluctant to leave home
  • Being upset at reminders of the trauma and doing their best to avoid reminders
  • Coping behaviours that may include self-endangering behaviours such as substance abuse and/or cutting

I am sure you have observed these behaviours in children or teens. They may not be your own children and often when this behaviour is observed most being ask “what is wrong with that kid?” and the school system usually wants to label the child with a learning disability, but that is not helping the child. This is not a case of “what is wrong with that child?” it is a case of “what happened to that child?” We need to start changing the conversation around “troubled” children and start looking at what has happened in the past. What are they trying to tell us?

There are ways to help a traumatized child. For our infants, toddlers and preschoolers it is important for parents to stay close to their child. Kids of all ages need security, especially after trauma, but for our younger ones they will struggle to verbalize their trauma (if they can at all) and what they need. So staying close to your child gives them a sense of security. Help the child anticipate what will happen, give them choices. When trauma happens our sense of control in our life is rocked to the core. It is important to give that feeling of control back to the child. I will give you an example. Let’s say you ask your youngster to put away their toys and they refuse too. Instead of getting angry at them it is important to offer them a choice like, “Sarah you can put your toys away or you can go to your room for a time out.” This gives the child a choice without anger or a threat and they are then in control of what happens next. It is also important to name the child’s feelings and letting them know that feelings are good to feel. It is also important to give them reassurance as they need it and expect to do this over and over again. It is normal for children to need repeated reassurance.

For a school aged child it is important to listen to a child’s concerns and to answer questions truthfully and simply. Also let your child be close to you if they need you. They too will look to you for security. Reassure the child that they are safe. Also name their feelings and encourage them to express them through play or art. It is also important to help the child anticipate what will happen next in their life to help them feel in control and to give them choices. Like our younger children expect to do these things over and over.

For teens it is very similar to the younger children. With teen you will also want to give them choices, be close to you if they need to, encourage them to express their feelings through journaling, art, dance or writing poems and songs. Help them anticipate what happens next and provide an environment where your teen can talk about their concerns. Also expect to do these things over and over. Healing from trauma takes time, patience and hard work. There is no straight time line for healing trauma so basically it will take as long as it takes. Over time, as your child heals you will notice that the effects of trauma will lessen and the trauma will become a part of them. If  there are symptoms that you feel incapable of handling on your own it is always best to seek professional help. It is also important as a parent that you are supported. It is not easy to watch your child struggle and all of this can be a heavy load to carry so reach out to family and friends. If needed seek professional help for yourself to help you cope in healthy ways.

I have to say that my children have come a long way in the last eight years.  We no longer need to share a bed together. Outbursts and clingyness has been replaced with children who are getting to know who they are, are enjoying being with friends and can sleep without nightlights. I am extremely proud of each of them for all they have achieved in their recovery.  The good days happen more often than the bad now, but yes we still have struggling moments. Which is why last night when I held one of my children, as they sat on the bathroom floor and cried, I was not surprised that this was happening. I held them knowing that their pain still needs to come out and that is OK. I know that I do not have to solve this for them I just need to be there, to listen, hold them and let them know that they are safe and loved. I know that over time the impact of their trauma is lessening, one day at a time.

If you or your child needs extra help dealing with trauma I encourage you to speak to your doctor or seek out a therapist trained in trauma to help you through it. Until we meet again….

Peace,

Janet

PS. Kids Help Phone is available for any child in need. They can be reached at  1-800-668-6868

 

 

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