Traumatized Children

Gina Barthelemy-Morton, M.Ed., LPC, NCC

What is trauma? How do children cope with trauma? There are many children who are left with the difficulty of: (1) attempting to understand their traumatic experience, (2) being challenged to cope with their trauma, and (3) bearing emotional scars from the trauma that will affect future relationships and future decisions.

What is trauma?

Trauma is defined as a powerful shock that may have long-lasting effects or as an unpleasant experience which causes abnormal stress. Traumatic events for children may include the loss of a parent, sexual abuse, witnessing experiences of violence, and natural disasters. Research has revealed that long-lasting stressful circumstances increase the risk of children developing a psychological or physical condition.

What is the treatment for childhood trauma?

The treatment for traumatized children may include: creating a safe haven for each child; having supportive adults to surround that child as he or she develops and attempts to cope with the traumatic event; and seeking individual and/or family counseling. A play therapy environment is one that is conducive to recalling these traumatic events in a controlled setting. By creating this environment, it is easier for children to share their feelings of loss, anxiety, stress, anger, and sadness. After developing a rapport with children, a therapist may deem it important to begin including the parents in order to practice the skills learned at home.

How do children cope with traumatic experiences?

Children are not equipped with the mechanisms to cope with the traumatic events that adversely change their lives. These coping mechanisms are tools that children can utilize during and after stressful, fearful, and anxiety-producing situations strike. Coping methods for children may include counseling, physical exercise, and relaxation techniques. A counselor may choose to utilize play therapy as a means of helping a child to draw, write, act, or play out his or her emotions. Physical exercise can be introduced to a child as a means of relieving stress. Children can be educated on relaxation techniques that will help to promote and reduce the amount of anxiety they may feel.

Children traumatized with natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina found play therapy to be useful in overcoming their fears in a secure manner. It was during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, through play therapy, children were given opportunities to share their personal experiences through “before-and-after” drawings. Children created pictures that were so explicit in detail that it was apparent the amount of pain and distress they were feeling. This method helps the therapist to learn how children perceive the world around them.