Coping with a child’s traumatic experience can be confusing and stressful not only for the child but also for the parents or other caregiver. Deciding when and where to go for help is an important decision. Not all children exposed to traumatic events develop a traumatic stress reaction.
However, if a parent or other caregiver thinks a child may have symptoms of traumatic stress, it is important to seek help from qualified professionals. When selecting a mental health provider, parents/caregivers need to ask if the provider has been trained in trauma-focused interventions.
Trauma-focused interventions occur on many different levels. In addition to family and other natural supports, a variety of service systems (child welfare, law enforcement, education, faith-based, health, juvenile justice, mental health, etc.) may become involved in providing informal or formal care to a child.
A number of therapies have been proven to be effective and others are being studied. Several components will be considered to find the best treatment for a specific child. Several of these treatments are based on what mental health professionals call cognitive-behavioral approaches. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has identified several elements that need to be part of these approaches:
- Teaching children stress management and relaxation skills to help them cope with the unpleasant feelings.
- Exploring the traumatic event and feelings about it at a speed that doesn’t distress the child.
- Creating a coherent story of what happened, either in words, art, music or dance.
- Clarifying perceptions about what happened and why.
- Understanding and correcting unhealthy beliefs and behaviors that have resulted from the trauma.
- Engaging parental support whenever possible. Parents and other caregivers can create a stable and caring environment so the child learns that traumatic experiences do not have to dominate life.
- Providing opportunities to symbolically create more effective and empowering resolutions to trauma stories.
Regardless of the trauma experienced, the first step in receiving care should be an assessment. This involves bringing together a number of people who know the child – caregivers, teachers, social workers, case managers, law enforcement. Getting professionals together at once assures the child does not have to repeat his/her story numerous times.
Can medication help? Research for the use of psychotropic medications in children has been limited. Therefore, parents must use caution in finding a psychiatrist with pediatric trauma expertise. While medications may help with treating specific symptoms, there is no definitive medication treatment to “cure” children’s traumatic stress.