Children who’ve been through traumatic or scary events can often seem listless and down. You may have noticed them spending more time alone or complaining about being different from their friends at school. Isolation, a feeling of solitude, of being set apart for the wrong reasons, can set in big-time for kids, leaving them uncertain about themselves or driven to act out for attention in all the wrong ways. Why is this, and what can we do to support our kids in kicking isolation to the curb and realizing that they are perfect, just the way they are?
Convince them it’s safe to remember the trauma
The number-one reason children feel isolated after a trauma is the difficulty around talking about what happened and connecting with others over this huge event in their lives. Children often don’t want to remember their difficult experiences because they worry they’ll be overwhelmed by the difficult emotions or sensations they experienced when the event happened initially. A child whose brother died suddenly might avoid talking about his brother out of fear that his grief will overwhelm him and he’ll cry a river so deep he’ll drown. A teenager who broke her arm in a car accident might avoid doctor’s appointments under the impression that it will keep her from re-experiencing the physical pain she felt when she initially had her bone set.
Of course, the reality is that remembering a trauma does not actually catapult us back in time and force upon our bodies or brains what we felt at the time of the trauma. But it feels that way for traumatized children, and we have to remind ourselves that strong feelings are scary for children, especially when they’re young. Children need guidance around dealing with all types of big and intense feelings, but particularly those which are trauma-related. We can teach our kids that remembering what happened is not the same as going through it all over again. We can remember little bits at a time, then practice moving away from the tough feelings, then back into them again later on. Convince them it’s safe to remember, that they are safe now.
Let them know they’re not alone
Children with trauma often think they are the only person on the planet who has gone through what they’ve gone through, or who has the same feelings they do about it. Because they have less real-world experience and are often shielded from the more nefarious parts of humanity, children typically have little information about trauma and who it happens to. They’re often shocked to learn how common traumatic events and how many other people their age may have experienced something similar. When kids are under the impression that something bad has happened to them, and not to others, they might use words like, “different,” “changed” or “broken” to describe themselves. This type of self-concept leads to isolation.
Kids can feel less alone when they realize they’re not the only one. Asking questions like, “How many other kids have experienced [their trauma]?” “Does [their trauma] happen only to kids your age, or other ages, even grown-ups?” “Is it just our family who has been through [their trauma], or have other families?” “What types of people go through [their trauma]?” Connecting with other kids or families who have experienced similar events can help children shake off some of the loneliness and shame that comes with trauma. And, of course, remind them that you’re there for them and that they don’t have to face their feelings on their own.
Make it OK to talk about the trauma
Isolation becomes a major risk factor when a child was told that there is something about their story that is wrong to speak about—maybe because it is too gross/bad/weird/uncomfortable, or maybe because something bad will happen if they tell. This gets even worse when kids go through something that is not socially acceptable to talk about openly, or that garners a negative reaction from people. Sexual abuse is the most obvious example of a trauma type that fits this bill, but domestic violence, physical abuse, or a caregiver’s substance abuse might also meet this criteria. Families dealing with big issues such as these are understandably motivated to try and keep these matters private out of fear of real repercussions, but unfortunately this sends an oppressive message to kids and leaves them with information that they now have to work hard to keep buried. Some children might even consciously or unconsciously choose to be isolated so as not to have to worry about being discovered.
Even when kids simply sense that there is something unspeakable about their story, they protect themselves by holding it in and isolating. Parents might accidentally contribute to this by not asking kids about the trauma, thinking it’s better to let a (seemingly) sleeping dog lie or believing that they won’t be able to handle the details. It’s likely that children feel isolated because they are getting subtle messages from others that what they experienced was abnormal, weird or somehow wrong.
It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but a good rule of thumb is that, when it comes to trauma, courage should always be more important than comfort. It takes courage to remember and to face the fear that remembering and talking about their trauma will result in overwhelming emotions or negative consequences. Demonstrate to your child that there is no piece of their story that is too terrible, gross, or difficult for you to know about. You are the adult, the strong one, and you can handle it—even if you have to remind yourself sometimes it’s OK to remember. It might hurt to find out the details of their suffering, but if you avoid that information, you’re sending the message that what they experienced was shameful and they should feel isolated and different from others.
Teach kids and teens that there are people who know how to talk to and help kids about trauma, and there are people who don’t know. Enable them to pick the right people to tell about their trauma and to help them with their symptoms. Parents, close family members, school counselors, and therapists are all good options. Other people, like classmates, teachers, or friends’ parents might not be sure how to help and they could say the wrong thing accidentally. There are lots of times when other people will need to be informed, and in those cases, it’s a good idea to be the messenger yourself, rather than the child.
Help them cope with their PTSD symptoms
Traumatized people often strongly believe that others can tell they’ve been through a trauma just by looking at them. Even if kids do get past this belief, they still might notice that they react to the world differently than the people around them. What sounds like a drum beating to the average child can sound like a gunshot to a traumatized child. The smell of vanilla might make a typical teen think of her new perfume while a traumatized teen might think of the candle she watched burning while her parents fought violently. These thoughts and feelings can all contribute to that problematic and isolating belief that they are different from others and are alone in their experiences in general.
If a child knows that their distress is coming from trauma reminders and knows how to cope with those reactions, they can feel a sense of pride and self-confidence that can override that isolation and help them realize they’re on-track to getting back to normal. This is part of why talking about the trauma is so important, because you need to play detective quite a bit to determine what trauma reminders are—sometimes they can be quite unpredictable! Colors, sounds, scents, phrases of speech, and body positions might all be sneaky reminders of the traumatic experience. Help your child be prepared and arm them with a few skills to use when they remember so that they can prevent getting overwhelmed. Simple coping skills like taking a deep breath or squeezing a stress ball can go a long way!
PTSD and Parenting
When children aren’t empowered to speak about their trauma or cope with the reminders of it, they can come to the conclusion that the story of who they are isn’t acceptable to the world around them, and that they must therefore stay away and be on their own. It can be very isolating to go through a traumatic event, but there is so much we can do to help children reconnect and recover. When we make it safe to remember and share, we help children realize that they’re not alone and that this trauma does not have to define who they are.
If you’re looking for support, seek out a therapist who has training and experience treating kids with trauma. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT for short) is an evidence-based form of treatment that guides kids through learning to cope and helping parents shoulder this weight.
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Hi friends! I'm Jordan Motta, a licensed therapist in CO and FL-- lover of both snowfall and ocean waves. A work-in-progress, constantly in search of a life of peace, a girl sailor with a pocket yacht, I love helping people find more options about how they want to live their lives. Follow me on Instagram @jordanmottaLMFT.