Trauma refers to an overwhelming, unanticipated danger or event that cannot be mediated or processed by the individual. Traumatic events are a direct threat to a person’s wellbeing. When confronted with trauma, a child may not have the ability to cope with the experience. While very young children may not remember specific events they do remember emotions, images and can be reminded of situations that cause them to be upset. Children often know when those they love are upset or worried and are not available to them. What they recognize is that mommy or daddy may not behave as they have before. They may hear more angry words or feel the absence of someone who loves them. They do not always understand what is happening but they do feel differences and sense changes. They are comforted and assured when they are told that mommy or daddy is sad, that mommy and daddy will always love them, that mommy or daddy can’t live here anymore, or that we have to move to another house. Parents and caregivers and other caring adults play a very important role in comforting and helping the child make sense of traumatic events.
Older children may ask questions and if they don’t, it is good to tell them what is happening in simple and reassuring words. Talking to children honestly but simply will help them to feel safe and secure. It is important not to give a child more information than they are asking for or that is developmentally appropriate. Children need their parents and caregivers to make sense of troubling thoughts and feelings.
Violence in the home can be very harmful to young children. Changes due to being homeless, parental drug or alcohol use or divorce can also be hard for young children. These changes are scary for children and alert them to be afraid and careful. Parents can get help from their doctors and from those who are experienced in working with mental health issues of young children and their families. Child Guidance Clinics, Mental Health Clinics are resources as are infant/toddler home visiting programs through Family Resource Centers or hospitals.
In Connecticut a program called Family Based Recovery is available through the Department of Children and Families to help mothers with infants and toddlers who experience traumatic events. There are also programs through the Yale Child study Center that you may qualify for if you live in the New Haven area. To find out more about these programs, Connecticut residents can call 2-1-1. For more information on the impact of trauma on children, please see the Trauma section of the www.kidsmentalhealthinfo.com website.