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What Parents Need to Know About Childhood Trauma

September 30, 2011

Jean West, LCSW, CTC-S

One of the most effective ways to help children recover from traumatic experiences is to educate their parents about trauma. Sometimes parents’ unresolved traumas block their ability to help their child feel safe. In order to avoid their own fears they may unknowingly reject or minimize their child’s needs. Many of these parents have not received trauma-informed services themselves, and have not healed from their own experiences.

One family in particular stands out when I think of the generational impact of trauma. A mother and daughter both experienced trauma. As I started to talk about trauma as a sensory experience the mother began to tell me the sensory memories she had of living in a shelter with her own mother as a child. She remembered the smell of her mom’s mascara as she cried and held her little girl close. She remembered the soft feel of the flannel pajamas she wore and the crisp white sheets that were on the rows and rows of cots. These sensory memories helped her connect to her own feelings of terror and helplessness and, in addition, what had been a comfort to her. This, in turn, helped her better understand how her daughter was feeling. She became more in tune with her daughter’s need for safety and understanding and was able to connect with her daughter’s feelings of helplessness by exploring her own sensory memories.

Tips for parents to help them understand how to “be there” for children:

  1. Don’t underestimate the impact trauma can have on a child.
  2. Secondary wounding can occur when a child is told, “I don’t believe you,” or “It couldn’t have happened that way,” or “If only you hadn’t…”
  3. After experiencing trauma, a child’s primary need is safety and nurturance, even if it seems they are “pushing us away.”
  4. How a child perceives an event is often different than what we may expect.
  5. Children may temporarily regress after a trauma. They may start to wet the bed again, suck their thumb, or want to sleep with their parents.
  6. View children from a developmental (not chronological) perspective. They may be 6-years-old but may be responding as a 4-year-old.

Remember safety, comfort and reassurance are the most effective tools to bring parents and children through the storm.

In research conducted by TLC, children with the most parental support had the most improvement after being a part of a structured sensory trauma intervention program (Steele & Raider, 2009).

For more information on what parents need to know about childhood trauma, a podcast presentation conducted by Dr. William Steele, TLC Founder, will be available on November 10, 2011. Click here to register for TLC podcasts.


Steele, W. & Raider, M.  Structured Sensory Intervention for Traumatized Children, Adolescents and Parents: Strategies to Alleviate Trauma (SITCAP). 2009. Edwin Mellen Press: NY, NY.

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