Parents tell about their children’s recovery from trauma

A child has been injured in an accident. Or has witnessed a suicide. Or has been assaulted on the way home from school. What is parents’ story when such a thing happens? How do they describe the recovery of their child? And what can we learn from their experiences?

We spoke in-depth with the parents of 25 children who had been through varied types of trauma, including serious road traffic accidents, witnessing murder, sexual assault, the loss of a sibling, and an explosion at home. The events had happened at least 6 months previously and the children were between 8 and 12 years old at the time of the interview.

Even though our questions mainly regarded the child’s recovery, parents talked a lot about their own role in this recovery. In particular, they spoke about two elements of their parenting. The first concerned becoming aware of the child’s needs. Parents tried to figure out what would be normal reactions to the event and to what extent their child showed those or more severe reactions. They used various strategies, including:

  • asking the child directly how he/she felt
  • comparing the child’s behavior before and after the event
  • deciding whether the child’s behavior was in line with his/her character
  • comparing the child’s reactions with those of a sibling
  • checking with other adults (e.g., the teacher) whether they saw changes in behavior or school performance

Second, parents adopted a variety of strategies to act on the needs they identified. To facilitate the child’s recovery, there was often an element of giving the child control over situations. Parents’ approach included:

  • providing opportunities to talk about the event without pushing the child
  • answering questions about the event at the child’s pace
  • guiding confrontations with reminders (e.g., helping a child to go to school by bike again after a traffic accident)
  • protecting from unnecessary harm (e.g., from sensation seeking television crews)
  • hiding own distress
  • searching for help (e.g., mental health care)
  • taking up normal routines again
  • providing fun activities / enjoyable moments

Even though we focused on positive, responsive parenting strategies here (and this sample consisted of parents of children who had recovered relatively well), parents felt that their own distress influenced how their children were doing. We have seen this in our meta-analysis as well; parents’ stress reactions predict children’s posttraumatic stress over time. Some parents told that they had tried to hide their own emotions from their children when they judged them too intense but found out that their child knew about or had picked up the tension anyway.

Parents also talked about other types of interference with their children’s recovery; when professionals (e.g., police, physicians) communicated in a very different, abrupt way with the child. Some parents explained they had tried to follow their child’s pace in talking about the event and answering questions the child had, when a professional just ‘jumped in’ giving information which upset the child. On the other hand, psychoeducation (e.g., regarding restoring normal routines) by health care professionals was regarded very favorably by parents.

What can we learn from parents’ accounts? When you see parents after their child has been exposed to a traumatic event, it may be helpful to explore to what extent they use the above strategies and what the outcomes are. It will give you an idea of how the child is doing as well as how the parents cope with it. While it’s good to be careful regarding the strategy of hiding emotions (it’s unhelpful to burden a child with intense emotions but it’s important to communicate about them so a child isn’t left in the dark about what is happening), the other strategies are in line with current knowledge. Second, it appears to be important to make sure that you are aligned with parents regarding the timing and content of information given to children about what happened exactly during the traumatic event or what is going to happen (e.g., in medical or judicial procedures). Finally, parents value receiving psychoeducation. Give them information about what normal stress reactions are, and tips to support their child (e.g., going back to school as soon as possible to restore normal routines).

What kind of parenting strategies do you often see after trauma?

Alisic, E., Boeije, H., Jongmans, M., & Kleber, R. (2011). Supporting Children After Single-Incident Trauma: Parents’ Views Clinical Pediatrics DOI: 10.1177/0009922811423309

3 thoughts on “Parents tell about their children’s recovery from trauma

  1. Glad to see this subject on a blog. I am surprised that you did not mention Play Therapy or Filial Therapy–when 9/11 occurred, I had to buy more toy planes for the Play room–even for older “talkative” children. Playing out the trauma, without an adult asking questions, is so vital for restoring emotional stability. Will be good to hear from parents about the respectful need for play.

    • Hello,
      Thanks for your thoughts. It’s interesting, a few parents talked about play (or the sudden lack of it) of their children, but utilizing their child’s play didn’t present as a separate strategy. It may be that parents just took it together with the other forms of ‘talking about the event’ with the child; parents did talk about looking for the right opportunity to talk, and this may well be during play.

  2. I’m glad that there is work being done with children and trauma. In the past it seemed that children were treated as non-entities without feellings and it’s good to see that children’s feelings, reactions, and recovery from trauma are being taken seriously and that parents are being educated about the recovery process.

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