When I watch children playing - bending down to pick up a pebble treasure, humming to themselves as they fit blocks together, even getting furious because teddy won't stay in the position they keep contorting him into - my heart throbs. If only "teddy" was every child's greatest frustration. If only children could be children, clueless about trauma. Oblivious to fear.
And yet children all over the world experience horrific trauma; things no one should be exposed to at any age. Parents, extended families and communities are stretched to the limits of survival, often with few resources remaining to help the tiny humans muddle through their pain-streaked, baffling world.
Far from a comprehensive list, the suggestions below offer a guide for helping children cope with ongoing trauma.
1: Check in daily
It's easy for us adults to think we can "read" kids. If they look happy, they're fine. If they're screaming, they're upset. But children's brains, though small, are complex, and their reasoning doesn't follow adult logic.
Rather than asking "Are you OK?" or "How are you?", try "What was hard for you today?" "What do you miss about ____?" or "What are you thinking/feeling right now?"
Be prepared to hear some answers you don't like. A child's suffering can trigger intense parental guilt, even when it's not the parent's fault. Please don't shut down their answers. It's OK to acknowledge, "Yeah, I miss home too" or "I get that you're scared".
2: Kids don't have kid-sized emotions
Smaller bodies, smaller clothing, and smaller reasoning abilities? Yes. Smaller emotions? No!
A glance at a child in full blown meltdown mode dispels this myth.
Not knowing what to do with these larger-than-life emotions, sometimes adults try to shut them down. Instead, try validating the feeling. Instead of "Get a hold of yourself" or "You shouldn't feel that way" or "Stop crying", try something like, "I understand that you're angry. When you're angry, it's OK to cry. It's OK to hit your pillow. It's not OK to hit your sister." It helps if you can get down on their level, make eye contact, and maintain your own calm as you help them weather the storm of emotion.
Even adults can't make huge emotions disappear into thin air on command. Rather than telling children to stuff it (which will only make us seem like the enemy in their eyes) why not teach them how to appropriately deal with big, painful feelings?
3: Resist the urge to lie
In an attempt to alleviate her child's nightmares, one mom promised, "The men with guns won't come again." But they did. Keeping them away was outside of mom's control. The child's nightmares returned full-force, along with the belief that mom couldn't be trusted.
It can be tempting to reassure a child that he will never be bullied again or that she won't have to move again or that the old car crashed but this new one never will. Instead of false promises, offer what you can deliver. "When you feel afraid, you can come hold my hand." "I will always do my best to keep you safe." "I hope there's not another earthquake. If there is, we will [agreed upon safety procedure]."
4: When possible, keep rituals
Kids need structure even during the best of times. When their world is spinning out of control, familiar rituals may be the anchor they cling to.
Telling bedtime stories is one ritual that doesn't require anything but time and a bit of creativity. If you're tired, try getting them started with an idea or two and then let them tell it.
My brother's family has a ritual called "the peach and the pit". At dinner time, each person shares their "peach" (enjoyable aspect of the day) and their "pit" (difficult aspect of the day).
Another option is to have each family or group member pick an emotion from a feelings chart (pictures of faces for younger kids, lists of words for older kids) and share how they're feeling at that moment.
These rituals provide at least a small amount of predictability and a sense of connectedness. Are your kids getting silly and not taking these rituals seriously enough? That's OK. If it's not vindictive, I see silliness as a sign of resiliency in most kids.
5: Give kids choices (and say yes when you can)
Loss of choice is often an inherent part of trauma. Perhaps the child lost the option of living at home. Perhaps playing outside or going to a friend's house is no longer an option. Perhaps they lost a family member.
What choices can you give your child that won't compromise their safety or well-being? Can you let them wear the shoes they love even though you think they look ridiculous? Can they choose to do their chores now or in 15 minutes? Can they choose to watch that same dumb show that always makes them laugh even though it replays itself in your sleep?
Little choices may go a long way in helping your little ones find resilience.
As you ponder how to help the children in your life who are suffering from trauma, how are you doing? Yes, you, dear reader. The healthier you are, the better you will be able to help others. What do you need today?
Laura Lanford is a professional counselor with a special place in her heart for internationals, expats, immigrants, refugees, third culture kids and all who have been "uprooted". She focuses on trauma, grief and loss, attachment and relationships, and finding connectedness and a sense of home in a world of global uncertainty. Learn more at lifeuprooted.com.