Helping Children Deal with Trauma: Parents Talk About How They’ve Helped Their Children Deal with Tough Family Situations (page 3)
When Greg Colver lost custody of his three children to Child Protective Services, he says he got the motivation he needed to get off drugs. He’d been in drug treatment programs off and on for years, but says he’d “always left the program at the door.” When CPS got involved, it “stopped being about me,” he recalls. A social worker referred him to Parents’ Anonymous, and he joined.
But then he faced another challenge—helping his children deal with the trauma they’d experienced during the years he was on drugs. Parents’ Anonymous got him into a wraparound program with services for the entire family.
When parents struggle to turn their life around, they have the added challenge of helping their children cope with the trauma they’ve faced. A few parents share what worked for them.
“Every child is different”
“Every child, every situation is different. There can be a range of reactions, depending on the stressors, the child’s age, and their developmental level,” says Linda Perez, child psychologist at the Epiphany Center for Women and Children.
A child may be anxious, depressed, tuned out, or aggressive, or have tantrums, language problems, or changes in sleeping or eating patterns. “It’s not a child that’s acting out, but a child that’s needing help,” adds Perez.
“My youngest son Anthony, who’s two, was very angry,” says Michelle Mandujano, a recovering mother of two whose children witnessed her substance abuse. “He was abusive to others and would bang and slam his head on things.”
Graciela Rodriguez, whose four children witnessed domestic violence against her, found her oldest daughter was “extremely shy and had very low self-esteem.” Her two younger daughters were often “timid and scared.”
“Parents have to reassure children and make them feel safe,” says Perez. “Domestic violence is usually lots of screaming, so loud noises (or fighting) might trigger traumatic stress. Try to remove the triggers—that’s why working with therapists is helpful.”
Let children express their feelings
“Parents have to be open to listening to what children have to say about (the trauma),” says Colver. “Dismissing their feelings will only foster resentment, but validating their feelings aids their healing process.” Experts suggest providing opportunities for children to talk, write, or draw about their feelings. Mandujano’s older son, Isaiah, found it hard to talk to her about his feelings, so he would tell a therapist while Mandujano was in the room.
When parents played a role in trauma, adds Colver, for example, with substance abuse, they “have to accept the fact that their children have been hurt by them.” He had a hard time, he says, accepting that his children cursed at him.
“I’ve been clean for four years,” says Colver, “but there are still times when my kids reflect old behavior, and I have to remind them that things aren’t like that anymore—without getting angry or making them resentful. What I learned in the counseling sessions and anger management classes makes that possible.”
Tackle the issue as a team
With the help of a facilitator, “we sat down and made goals together as a family,” says Colver—for chores, rules, discipline, and family activities. “And then we’d come back together at the start of each week to talk about how things were going—how we could improve, what we needed to do more of, less of. Everyone contributed. It worked much better than me coming in and saying ‘This time is different,’ because now they had control over how things would go.”
Stick to routines
“Anthony has a lot of trouble with transitions,” says Mandujano, “even if it’s just a new child coming to his day care. Because I was in and out of his life due to my habit, it was hard for me to try to come back in and build a relationship with him. I’ve learned that one of the main things in helping your child is consistency.” Mandujano has set up weekly routines such as eating dinner at home together and attending weekly family counseling sessions.
“Ask for help,” says Colver. “Don’t be afraid to use the resources around you, whether it’s professional, spiritual, or within your family.”
Rodriguez found that leaning on family members made a world of difference. “In my Mexican culture, it is traditional that family helps in the raising of the children,” she says. “I believe this helped a great deal; we wouldn’t be where we are today if it were not for the support of my parents and siblings.” Her mom, sisters, and brother provided emotional support and helped take care of the children after Rodriguez left her abusive husband.
Seek professional help
“It’s very important, when dealing with trauma and the effects it has on a child, that you seek professional help,” says Perez—“particularly if you find the methods you’ve been using aren’t working or things are getting worse.”
Mandujano agrees. “Get all the outside help you can and be open to trying new things,” she says. “I took advantage of a program that supplied us with a child psychologist, family therapist, motor-skills specialist, and interactive parenting classes. (Now Anthony) has improved tremendously in his vocabulary—and, while he still gets angry, we now know how to deal with it together.”
“Coming to the domestic violence shelter was a big difference in our lives,” says Rodriguez. “(My children) got the message that they deserved better, and that they weren’t alone. (They) got involved with helping battered families. It’s been very rewarding to give back. You would not recognize my children today. They are strong, safe, free, happy, and not afraid to speak their mind.”
- National Mental Health Information Center has tips for helping children cope with fear and anxiety, http://mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/publications/allpubs/Ca-0022/default.asp
- Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse has a list of children’s books and videos to help children talk about domestic violence, www.mincava.umn.edu/
- Successful Parenting for Families Affected by Addiction, $20. Child Welfare League of America, 800-407-6273, www.cwla.org/pubs/pubdetails.asp?PUBID=8730
- Children and community violence includes tips for caregivers, www.hec.ohio-state.edu/famlife/bulletin/volume.3/bull33f.htm
- Something is wrong at my house helps children cope with domestic violence. English or Spanish, $7. Parenting Press, 800-992-6657, www.parentingpress.com/b_sw.html
Reprinted with the permission of the Action Alliance for Children.
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