How can I help my child with PTSD?
Although parenting can be tricky no matter what, having a child with PTSD or C-PTSD can be even more challenging.
Unfortunately, there are no one-size-fits-all answers on how to help your child with PTSD – everyone’s experience with the condition is different, but we’ve put together some tips to help your whole family.
It’s important for adults to bring up talking about difficulties and upsetting memories with a child directly, as they’re unlikely to bring it up themselves. Talking with your child can help immensely – but be sure to do it with compassion, and with no pressure – be clear that they don’t have to talk, but you’re available to listen whenever they’re ready. Talking with them can help in a variety of ways – it can help:
- process the experience into their memory correctly and prevent forgetting (or ‘false memories’)
- them appraise and interpret the experience
- correct misconceptions
- manage and regulate their emotions
- provide information about their coping strategies which can then help you be part of those
Help them understand
You know your child better than anyone – so we’re not here to tell you how to tell them what’s going on, or why they feel like they do – but giving them some understanding (depending on their age/level of development) can be useful. For younger children who’ve seen Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ – this article might come in useful to help explain it to them.
Make the most of any trips to GPs, therapists or other professionals
Meeting with GPs or other health practitioners can be overwhelming even for you – you’re focusing on your child and how to help them, so you may forget things you wanted to ask, or struggle to be able to listen fully if your child gets upset. It can be really helpful to think about the visit before you go. Consider the following before any appointments:
- Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down any questions you have – perhaps ask a friend or loved one have a think about questions too.
- Take a pen and paper with you. Sometimes making notes on your phone can be tricky, but writing down any new treatments or tests can help you focus, and you can go over them later.
Know when to get help
If your child is experiencing symptoms and difficulties for more than a month after a trauma, you should speak to their school, GP or Senco – help is usually then provided by the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.
Children can be very sensitive to their parents’ or other adults reactions – both to the event itself and to talking about it afterwards. They may stop discussing a traumatic event and its consequences as they soon notice that doing so upsets their parent or loved ones. This may, in part, explain why parents underestimate the degree of stress reactions experienced by their children. If you get upset while talking to your child about the trauma, let them know it’s still ok to talk about it – but that it’s also ok to cry or get upset, it’s natural and doesn’t mean you can’t talk things through.
‘Your child will need to feel safe with you and believe that you and other significant people in their lives can cope and manage whatever they are feeling and behaving. Your child may push boundaries but try to stay calm. They will want to know they are loved by you regardless of whatever has happened to them.
Let your child know that it is normal to have lots of different feelings and emotions after a trauma. Help them accept whatever emotions they are feeling, empathise with them and acknowledge that the trauma they have experienced has been really tough. Let them know you think they are very brave and courageous.
Routine and distractions
Anyone who has experienced trauma can relish the predictability and calming nature of a routine, so be ready to explain changes to your child with PTSD, and manage any concerns. Also, they may benefit from being offered more choices to instil a feeling of being in control.
Distraction techniques can also help take your child’s mind of what may be worrying them.
Some ideas include:
- Playing games
- Singing songs or listening to music
- Drawing and painting
- Playing with friends
- Mindfulness activities
- Swimming, ball games or other sporting activities
- Creative activities
Understand their need to relive traumas
A child with PTSD may give clear indications of their distress, by seeking to frequently talk about what happened, write about it or draw pictures. Particularly as PTSD in children can cause intrusive memories, thoughts or images that they struggle to ‘switch off’.
Should you stop a child from reliving their trauma in this way? The common wisdom is to distract them and stop them from ‘dwelling on the past’. However, many children are naturally gregarious and desperate to share. If they are not distressing themselves or any siblings, providing children with an outlet to relive things can be a healthy release.
When your child displays PTSD symptoms, have coping strategies ready to use. For example, a safe, calm and quiet space for them to go to. Or, they may need breathing exercises and mindfulness strategies to defuse escalating emotions.
It clearly helps if you know their triggers – such as loud noises or feeling ‘under attack’. Your response should also include reminders of expected behaviours and constructive suggestions of how they can move forwards positively as well as reminding them they are safe in that moment.
These are calming techniques you can use with children with PTSD and other mental health issues. These basically help a child to settle their emotional and mental turmoil by focusing on their five senses. Some great examples of grounding techniques are:
- FIVE THINGS: get your child or young person to list ‘5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you smell, 2 things you can touch and1 thing you taste
5-4-3-2-1 SIGHTS: ‘If noticing each sense is tough for your them right now, try an exercise just with sights. Create categories and ask them to name what they see. Here’s an example: 5 colours I see, 4 shapes I see, 3 soft things I see, 2 people I see and 1 book I see’
- BE A TREE: ‘There’s nothing more grounded than a tree! Teach them to feel their connection with the ground by imaging themselves as a tree. This sounds like, “I am firmly planted. I feel my feet rooted to the ground. My back is a strong trunk helping me feel stable in the moment. I feel my toes connecting with the ground. My arms are my branches. I feel them reach out into the world.” Simply noticing their bodies and feeling their connection with the room helps kids feel grounded!’
- OBJECT FOCUS: ‘Keep some unique items on hand with different textures and colours. These could be sensory items, colourful rocks, snow globes or something else. They can hold an item in their hands and tune in all of their focus to the item. Notice the colours. Notice the textures. How does it feel in my hand? How does it feel when I squeeze it? What colours do I see? Just notice everything there is to notice about the item!’
- STOMP STOMP BLOW: ‘For an active grounding exercise, have them stomp the left foot, stomp the right foot and then exhale deeply. Continue this pattern of stomp, stomp, blow, stomp, stomp, blow, stomp, stomp, blow. Feel the connection of feet with the floor. Blow away anxious thoughts.’
Additional calming techniques
Making a safe place for a child with PTSD can be as simple as a ‘den’ in the corner, comfortable and warm with cushions and blankets.
Calming options could also include listening to music and colouring in or providing the child with a fidget toy, lavender bag to squeeze or much-loved personal item for self-soothing.
Speak to defuse not treat
You can’t always ‘fix’ issues or concerns. However, it can be helpful to draw a line between their lived experience and current situation. For example, by quickly explaining that a loud noise was a door banging or a book being dropped. Or someone who’s crying is upset, not in danger.
Calming activities and tools for relaxations
The videos and tools below can really useful to helping children and young adults find strategies to help them cope when things feel overwhelming. Keep in mind, for children with PTSD, they may need you to stay with them to do these exercises, especially if they close their eyes – and they may need a big cuddle afterwards just to ‘return’ to the world after relaxing and being in a ‘new’ space.
- Kaminer, D., Seedat, S., & Stein, D. J. (2005). Post-traumatic stress disorder in children. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 4(2), 121–125.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Atle Dyregrov & William Yule, A Review of PTSD in Children, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Volume 11, No. 4, 2006, pp. 176–184, doi: 10.1111/j.1475-3588.2005.00384.x
- Trauma – a guide for parents
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.