Helping children build resiliency amidst trauma and pain

Eight steps that build resilience in the face of trauma, pain and stress.

Stress, physical and emotional pain, trauma and other overwhelming experiences are unavoidable parts of life—for children, youth and adults. Children may experience these feelings as a result of serious events such as neighborhood or school violence, bullying and accidents—as well as through the loss of a pet, personal illness and medical procedures, falls, family issues and other challenging life experiences. While difficult and painful situations are very real and often unavoidable aspects of life, adults can help to keep children safe and help them develop the resiliency they need to bounce back in the face of adversity.

In their book Trauma-proofing your kids: A parent’s guide for instilling confidence, joy and resilience, authors Peter Levine and Maggie Kline define resilience as the capacity we all have to spring back or rebound from stress, feelings of fear, helplessness and other overwhelming emotions. Drawing from their extensive backgrounds in psychology, stress and the mind-body connections of trauma, the authors share a step-by-step guide for parents and caregivers to help kids return to balance and feel capable and self-confident in the face of traumatic experiences. The eight steps they share include:

  1. Check your own body’s responses first. Children are very receptive to the energy and responses of the adults around them. Feel the sensations in your own body as you notice and observe your own level of fear and concern. Practice mindfulness by shifting your focus to the present moment, slowing yourself down and grounding yourself by noticing your feet connecting with the earth beneath you. You can also center yourself by noticing and connecting to your breath. Try just breathing in and breathing out deeply and slowly.
  2. Assess the situation. If your child shows signs of distress or shock (such as shallow breathing, glazed-over eyes, confusion, disorientation or appears overly emotional or numb), assure them in a gentle, clear, confident voice that you are there for them and that they are safe.
  3. As the shock wears off, guide your child’s attention to his or her sensations. When people are coming out of shock, our breathing starts to return to normal, color may return to our face and our eyes can focus again. As you notice your child coming out of shock, it’s important to direct attention to feelings in the body. Ask questions such as “how do you feel in your tummy (or other area of the body)” and ask them to describe how it feels to them (for example, kids might compare the feeling to butterflies or a hard rock). Trauma causes a build-up of energy in our bodies—and physical feelings of discomfort and pain as a result are common. Noticing and naming the feelings is the beginning of the important process of releasing this energy.
  4. Slow down and follow your child’s pace by careful observation of changes. Tend to your child with a calm, relaxed, loving and patient presence. This is an important aspect of what’s needed to help the intense energy move and release from your child’s body.
  5. Keep validating your child’s physical responses. Research shows that the natural reaction of crying and trembling after a scary experience (such as an accident) helps children recover from it over the long term. Don’t attempt to “help” by trying to stop them from expressing their emotions. It’s better to actually encourage this release by saying things like, “That’s okay…. let it go…..release that scary stuff through your tears and shaking….I’m right here…..”
  6. Trust in your child’s innate ability to heal. Try to relax and follow your child’s lead as you offer a space or “container” for their healing process. Your job is just to stay present with them, as opposed to distracting them from what they’re experiencing. Trust in your child’s capacity for healing and your own ability to help make this happen.
  7. Encourage your child to rest even if he or she doesn’t want to. When the time feels right after a release of energy such as tears, trembling or shaking, encourage your child to rest and sleep. This will allow for further releasing of trauma energy through relaxation and dreams and will encourage a return to balance. Children may want to tell stories about what happened later when they’re ready, but allow for rest and sleep first as part of this important healing process.
  8. The final step is to attend to your child’s emotional responses and help him or her make sense of what happened. After your child is rested and calm, encourage them to share the experience. Depending on their age and abilities, you can ask them to tell the story or draw a picture of what happened. Help children understand that their feelings of shame, fear, anger, worry, embarrassment and other painful emotions are normal—and let them know that you have experienced similar situations and feelings too. Don’t be surprised if through the telling of the story, intense feelings arise again. If that happens, repeat the steps provided and once again allow for the release of energy while you offer a calm, loving, safe presence.

This eight-step guide helps children learn early-on how important it is to tend well to trauma experiences by discharging the intense energy that gets released in our bodies when we experience overwhelming situations. When the intense energy build-up from trauma is not released, which is common, it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other stress-related health issues in children, youth and adults. One of the best things we can do is allow our bodies to release this energy naturally through crying, trembling and the natural shaking response that happens with strong emotions so that the energy doesn’t get trapped in our bodies.

According to Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, author of Trauma Stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others, if we don’t “shake it out” and release this energy, the trauma stays in our system, we metabolize it and we become saturated by it which often leads to chronic physical and mental health issues. Van Dernoot Lipsky stresses that we can care for ourselves as we care for others by regularly releasing our own energy through crying, screaming (when we’re alone so we don’t scare anyone!), push-ups, running, walking, dancing and other ongoing, rigorous physical activity.

In their book, Levine and Kline provide many suggestions and skill-building exercises for adults to strengthen their capacity to “trauma proof” their kids in ways that build connection, confidence, coping skills and resilience. And while parents and caregivers are essential to this process, keep in mind that kids (and adults) who have experienced trauma sometimes need additional support from professional counselors or therapists.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources, workshops and programs to help parents, adults and youth develop social and emotional skills and practice everyday mindfulness through programs like Stress Less with Mindfulness and Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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