Step 1: Creating Safety For The Traumatized Child

Parents bring kids into my office who are having meltdowns and rages.  Kids come in who are depressed, anxious, checking out, and struggling with lying or stealing.  Usually, these parents are at their wits’ end and need some sort of hope that their child will get better.

Through my experience with these children, I have discovered several steps that help a child toward healing that “broken” part of his brain that was damaged by trauma, abuse, or neglect.

Dr. Bruce Perry with the ChildTrauma Academy talks about the brain being fully organized by age 3.  That means that the experiences that occur within the first 3 years of a child’s life carry more weight in the developing brain.

If a child lays in a crib, crying, and seeking comfort with no response, that child “learns” that she cannot rely on others to meet her needs.  This becomes a formative experience that imbeds in a child’s brain and helps that child formulate “people are not safe.”

Although our perception may be that a child is in fact safe, all of his basic needs are met and he lives in a loving home, these experiences before the age of 3 are driving the child’s behaviors, responses, and feelings.

So what can we do?

1.  Recognize that a child’s behavior is not about YOU!  Often a child is reacting to something from his past.  It may be a memory that he cannot express verbally, a smell that reminds him of something he can’t quite put a finger on, or a feeling that was similar to how he felt when he was being traumatized, abused, or neglected.

2.  Create safe, daily rituals.  Children feel safe when there is predictability and structure.  When a child expresses has a strong emotional outburst, be calm, consistent, and loving as you endure that emotion.  Then, provide a healing, reparative ritual at the end of the emotion.  This could be a hug or a snuggle.  It may just be a high five or an “I love you no matter what.”

3.  Add more positive touch into the child’s life.   A child who has experienced early childhood trauma probably received very little positive touch.  Adding hugs each morning  and evening, or sitting on the couch side by side while you read a book together, or rubbing your child’s shoulder as she talks about her day at school, can invoke a sense of safety.

4.  Never give up.  Children need thousands of the same, safe, repetitive, predictable behavior in their life.  This will help change the dynamic that is occurring in their brain.  Even when you have been pushed to your last limit, never give up.  Continue to hold on and seek out your support system to help you out.

What do you do to create safety for your child?

Comment below and let the readers know what you are doing.  As we build our community of readers, we may get great ideas from each other.

Sending you love,

Stacy G. York, LCSW

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Leave A Reply (3 comments so far)

  1. Michelle
    5 years ago

    This doesn’t just apply to children. I have a young person (over 20) staying with me who never experienced what he should have as a child. Each time I provide a learning experience ( like dealing with Medicare) with gentle guidance and reinforce the fact I am here for him and will teach but not judge he backs away in fright but then accepts my help and asks for more guidance. This young person will never admit to feeling vulnerable or needing help but the relief experienced when an adult steps in and supports him is evident. Young people who haven’t been protected as children need safety created for them by adults who can see beyond their bravado when they don’t have family to create that safety.