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