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Be Reflective, Not Directive: Ways to Help a Traumatized Child, without Hindering

September 14, 2011


When something horrible happens to a child, there are things we can do to help and things that can make it worse. Fortunately, research is improving to help us understand what works.  Psychological First Aid is one example of a new method developed to improve upon previous ones that sometimes caused more harm than good.

If we know anything about trauma, it is this:  Sometimes, we need to talk about it a lot, and sometimes we don’t.   We need to be careful about how, when, and if trauma conversations occur. Consider the following.

What we have learned from the past that is harmful:

Don’t Push
Studies show that pushing someone too much to talk when they aren’t ready can increase trauma. Children and adults need to let things out at their own pace, in their own way, and with people they feel comfortable.

Don’t be a Crystal Ball
Telling someone what will happen to them is a well-intended mistake. Example might include:  “You might find yourself having a lot of nightmares” or “I bet you feel angry about what happened.”  Stating feelings or experiences before they are expressed can sometimes create problems that might have been avoided.

Don’t Minimize
Underestimating the experience isn’t helpful either. As an example, one common mistake is to tell an adolescent that a painful romantic break-up is “not that big of a deal.”

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to help:

Be Reflective, Not DirectiveBoy and Mom
Follow the child or adolescent’s lead. Let the child guide you, and pay attention to clues. Read body signals and listen well to what they say they want. If they want to talk, draw, play music, or are extra clingy, then support that. Likewise, if they prefer to go off with positive friends instead, support that as well.  As long as behavior is not obviously destructive, reflect what is going on, rather than telling the child what should be going on.

Social Support: Build it, Bridge it, Support it
Take this to the bank. As a child trauma counselor, I used to tell people that children can get through anything with enough social and emotional support. Social isolation is not good. Connecting children and families to positive people, who are comforting and supportive will be worth its weight in gold.

Create a Safety-Shield
Make sure the child or adolescent’s basic needs are met. Instinctively, we all need to feel safe, physically and emotionally. Are windows and doors locked? Is everybody out of harm’s way? Is the child with people who are caring, attentive, and relaxed?

Be Available
We all know people who hold it all inside, and people who need to talk about things over and over. Different styles work for different people. Just because a child doesn’t talk in overt ways, does not mean they are not finding positive outlets. They may be talking to a friend, or may throw themselves into music, work, or school as an outlet. What is important is that we are available if a child wants us to listen to them.

Distractions are a Good Thing
Distractions are a way to get back into life and gain a sense of belonging. Positive distractions come in many forms, through hobbies, socializing, a job, or house cleaning. Talking about meaningful or mundane events is also positive distraction against the trauma angst. One way or another, people will find and utilize distractions. Finding positive ones will, hopefully, replace the possibility of destructive ones.



Szalavitz, M. (2011). Tending to Japan’s Psychological Scars: What Hurts, What Helps. Time/CNN Inc.

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