Helping Children with Trauma Cope

Building a Safe Environment for Healthy Communication

It takes only a brief moment watching the news or a glance at a cell phone news alert to increase our anxiety. Between a world-wide pandemic and rising racial tensions, our everyday lives provide many opportunities for tension headaches and endless worry. As adults, we find ways to cope. Children, however, are still learning how to express their emotions and make sense of a tumultuous world.

Overwhelming Their Developing Brain

The children in your care face tremendous stress that can easily overwhelm their developing brains and ability to remain calm. They do not yet possess the skills necessary to process the stressful current events along with their trauma histories. These kiddos may be experiencing intense anxiety without expressing their worries or reaching out to receive support. The good news is that caregivers can do so much to create a safe environment that fosters healthy communication and model appropriate coping strategies.

  • Build quality time into your schedule. Children in your care may not easily trust caregivers, and they may not quickly tell adults how they feel. Provide your children with your undivided attention. Rushed conversations on the way to the next activity do not provide the space needed for children to open up. Creating a sense of safety required to help children talk about their worries may require a lot of time.
  • Create “Consequence-Free Zones.”  Let them know that they can tell you their thoughts, feelings, and concerns without consequence. Treat this time like a “get out of jail free card” that allows children immunity for whatever they tell you. This strategy may require an adjustment for parents, but it will pay off in increased trust between children and caregivers!
  • Develop a Nonjudgmental Response. A feeling or a worry does not equal an action. Your child might express a concern that cannot happen or a big, ugly emotion, but those concerns and feelings are still valid even if caregivers do not agree with them. The children in your care may also have vastly different cultural and life experiences that may create different responses to issues of racial unrest. When kids in your care do share their worries or emotions, try to avoid judging or placing a value on what you hear. Instead, acknowledge the emotion or concern. The acknowledgment sets the stage for deeper trust and a safer environment for children to share their inner experiences.
  • Acknowledge the elephant in past rooms. Your child’s strong emotional response to changes in the schedule due to COVID-19 precautions may have nothing to do with this current pandemic. The uncertainty of current events really may be triggering the stress of past unpredictability. Keep in mind for children to come into foster care, they have likely already experienced many frightening or traumatic events, even if they were placed in care as infants. Recent stressors may reawaken long past fears and traumas. Recognize the current anxiety and past trauma as well.
  • Use simple language to build a “feelings vocabulary.” Children in your care may not have the vocabulary to express their worries. When you’re reading books or watching movies, point out that the main character looks sad or scared. Play feelings charades – take turns acting out feelings for others to guess. After you’ve built a trusting relationship with your children, you can help them identify emotions by making statements like, “the frown on your face tells me you might be having a feeling right now. What do you think it might be?”
  • Model healthy emotional expression. Kids learn from the example adults provide. You will never bring your children to a place of greater emotional regulation than you can achieve. Let them “catch” you using a coping strategy when you experience a mild frustration or small worry. Allowing your children to witness you taking ten deep breaths when you can’t find your car keys will teach them so much more than reminding them to take deep breaths when they are frustrated.
  • Conversation Starters. Keep in mind your children’s developmental level, diverse cultural experiences, and the amount of exposure to current events. Some sample conversation starters include:
    • Preschool/Early Elementary ages. Sometimes other kids might talk about scary things happening right now. If you have any questions, I’m always here to talk. Did you notice all the people wearing masks? What did you think about that?
    • Middle/Late Elementary ages. I get nervous sometimes when I hear about things happening in the world. What about you? I noticed you were watching the news with us yesterday. Can we talk about what you saw?
    • Middle School ages. I know a lot is going on right now in the world and even here in Arizona. Do you want to talk about anything you’ve heard lately about the virus? Have your friends been talking about the protests?
    • High School ages. I noticed there is a lot of posts on Instagram about the protests. What are your thoughts? Is there anything you want me to know about your experience with racism (asked with great cultural sensitivity to a child you have a trusting relationship with). 
  • Provide nonverbal means to communicate. Many children will feel more comfortable expressing their anxiety or feelings without speaking. Drawing, journaling, painting, building with Legos, and even acting out feelings are all great ways to encourage emotional expression. 

There is no easy solution to helping children learn to express their emotions or to identify the anxiety that keeps them awake at night. But parents can take this intentional approach to create a safe environment for sharing.

Article written by Jennie Dalcour, MA, LPC
Child & Family Therapist, Christian Family Care