Helping a young child get past trauma

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 28, 2011 06:00 AM

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My 4 year old was molested by a 12 year old girl and her younger brother, age 9. I don't know everything that happened but she is in counseling at the moment. Every night she won't go to sleep and says she'll have nightmares. In the beginning of her telling me this, I believed her claims of nightmares. Now I feel she uses it as an excuse for everything she does that she not suppose to be doing or whenever I try to discipline her, she starts talking about being hurt. I still talk to her about what happened whenever she brings it up. But it is not seeming to help. Also she gets anger very easily and scratches her face or bites herself. I really don't know what to do. Before the abuse, my baby was a happy, loving, caring, bubbly child. Now it seems her days are filled with darkness and there is nothing I can do to help. Do you have any advice for me? I am lost and feel horrible that this has happened to my baby and I feel helpless. She's my baby and I just want her to be happy again.
Please help me!!

From: Sad and don't know what to do


Dear Sad and don't know what to do,

I am so sorry for what your daughter is going through, and for what you are going through, as well, and I commend you for getting her counseling. I urge you to talk to this person, too, or find another professional for you to talk to. I get the feeling that you are experiencing some guilt or responsibility for this event, a totally typical reaction. But you need help getting past it so you can get yourself and your parenting back to normal.

By that I mean: don't feel guilty for getting back to your typical routines and limit-setting! You probably initially felt the need to cut her some slack in terms of setting limits and discipline because you thought that would help her heal. But that's not the way these things compute to young children. Children feel safe and secure when life has familiar routines and a sense of structure, especially including consistency in limit-setting. When they are unsure of the boundaries, or feel insecure, they tend to push the boundaries more, almost as if they are asking, "When will mom say no, like she used to? What if I do this? What about this?"

Children who experience stress or trauma often regress, so that may be part of what's going on, depending on how recently the event was. That could account for the bedtime behavior and nightmares. I wouldn't question her nightmares, at least not to her, but I would wean her from that behavior by staying with her for shorter and shorter periods of time. Instead of lying down with her, sit at the edge of the bed and rub her back. After a few nights of that -- or maybe even a week of that; you'll have to see how it goes -- sit in a chair next to the bed. The goal is to eventually get the chair outside the door. If she wakes up in the middle of the night and wants you to stay with her, make her a little "bed" on the floor in your room where she can sleep instead of expecting you to get into her bed. These strategies take time, patience and consistency -- don't start them unless you're willing and able to see them through. It's also possible that sleeping on the floor of your room could become a habit from which you eventually will need to wean her, too. This is all a matter of trade-offs and what works best for your family.

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5 comments so far...
  1. I would let her sleep in your bed for a good long time. For some reason, we here in the US have decided, that's a bad thing. Take my word for it, sometime before she moves off to college, she will decide she doesn't want to sleep in Mommy's bed anymore. If you have a real issue with it, that's something else.But don't let anyone tell you that it's wrong and you have to wean her away.
    Other thing is to validate, validate, validate...Any kind of feelings are okay...It's what you do with them, how they make you ACT is the important part.
    And be consistent with limits. She needs to feel it was the others actions, not hers, that caused the hurt. Boundaries are the only way to reassure her that she didn't stray into harms way and cause the hurt

    Posted by pam December 28, 11 02:26 PM
  1. How long ago did the trauma take place? How soon was it discovered (not always immediately after the event)? That will determine how much reassurance the child will need to fall asleep.

    The concerned parent should also be actively following up with police, school, and other resources connected with the trauma. The child can then be honestly told that the system IS working and that future abuse will be prevented. This necessary daytime activity will help natural sleep to be restored.

    Posted by Irene December 29, 11 08:28 AM
  1. I agree with Irene's second paragraph but not the first. We all react to trauma differently....something that would seem minor and not much affect one person can truly shatter another. There are no objective measures for how much reassurance a given child needs. The child needs the reassurance she feels she needs...that's true for 40 year olds and even moreso for a four year old.

    I also agree with Pam...as long as the parents are ok with it, let the child sleep with you. Leaving a four year old alone with nightmares even if she wasn't traumatized seems cruel to me.

    There is lots of good information out there about trauma...going back to original routines is the "set" advice. But a traumatized child often needs lots more parent time in child-directed play that helps a child heal at home. An appointment with a therapist is great, but that's only one hour a week a most. The Globe has published some great articles in the past about the Child Witness to Violence Program at BMC and there is good advice in there for how to help a child who has been traumatized. If a child regresses, that child needs to be dealt with at that younger emotional age until the healing occurs and the child spontaneously moves on. That's not encouraging baby like behavior though I know many are going to disagree with me!

    Posted by Adoptive mother of traumatized child January 1, 12 12:28 PM
  1. In my experience, when any child under 6 talks repeatedly about "being hurt" they want to express something that they don't have the words for. Talking about "nightmares" sometimes is really about the fear of the abuse being repeated.

    If discovery of the abuse was delayed, then the child feels an extra sense of violation. Most abuse comes with the intimidation "don't tell anybody or you will REALLY get into trouble". The child is torn between that fear, and the need to tell in order to be safe again. Being abused by two children much older than yourself makes the intimidation factor HUGE. It is even possible for the abuse to be repeated, if the abusers see that there are no consequences. This is what I meant by the time factor.

    I am concerned that this mother says she doesn't know the details, but her child keeps trying to bring up the subject. This child NEEDS her mother to know the details, to rebuild that sense of safety. Anger is a child's way of saying "you aren't listening". Hurting herself is a more desperate measure of the same feeling.

    Dear "Sad", PLEASE just listen to your child tell you the details.This could be with the therapist or at home where the child seems to be trying to say something. Just hold your child in your lap and listen to what she is trying to tell you. This is such an important part of the healing process, please accept this out of my direct experience.

    My response to the child would then be, OK, what can we do today to make you feel safer today? I would pursue those specific things that the child says make her feel safe (within your good judgment as the parent). You will begin to see some good days and some quiet days, just keep working on feeling safe one day at a time.

    After you have some good days, you should also understand that new misbehaving is a sign that there is more to be talked about, and you should ask again, if there is something the child needs to tell you. Keep listening--you will see that the questions change over time.

    Posted by Irene January 4, 12 09:04 PM
  1. Irene, this time I agree with everything you say! Thanks for posting again..this is a really important topic. I agree that this child does need some "special treatment" and not just trying to wean her off this or that behavior. The child is not being manipulative but is genuinely scared and with very good reason. if the mom can help her feel safer now, it will so much help resolve future problems. Again, one hour of counseling a week is great, but the family needs to help this very young child feel safer 24 hours a day at home. A four year old is unlikely to be able to tell what actually happened..though she might. She is more likely to act it out in play and she needs to be allowed to do that as often and as long as she needs to. And, her experience of it, playing out of it, and verbalizing, will I agree change over time. What she remembers and how she plays or talks about it will reflect her four year old capacities and her own psychological truth and not necessarily what adults might call the actual facts. My 12 year old son is convinced he fell off the roof of Boston Medical Center while at preschool pre adoption and also that a doctor dropped him out of a window just after he was born. Don't argue with the child, accept her story and stay with her. Trying to change the subject or trying to change her play will not help her heal.

    I really wish Barbara had consulted some experts on this very sensitive topic.

    Posted by adoptive mother of traumatized child January 5, 12 06:50 PM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. I would let her sleep in your bed for a good long time. For some reason, we here in the US have decided, that's a bad thing. Take my word for it, sometime before she moves off to college, she will decide she doesn't want to sleep in Mommy's bed anymore. If you have a real issue with it, that's something else.But don't let anyone tell you that it's wrong and you have to wean her away.
    Other thing is to validate, validate, validate...Any kind of feelings are okay...It's what you do with them, how they make you ACT is the important part.
    And be consistent with limits. She needs to feel it was the others actions, not hers, that caused the hurt. Boundaries are the only way to reassure her that she didn't stray into harms way and cause the hurt

    Posted by pam December 28, 11 02:26 PM
  1. How long ago did the trauma take place? How soon was it discovered (not always immediately after the event)? That will determine how much reassurance the child will need to fall asleep.

    The concerned parent should also be actively following up with police, school, and other resources connected with the trauma. The child can then be honestly told that the system IS working and that future abuse will be prevented. This necessary daytime activity will help natural sleep to be restored.

    Posted by Irene December 29, 11 08:28 AM
  1. I agree with Irene's second paragraph but not the first. We all react to trauma differently....something that would seem minor and not much affect one person can truly shatter another. There are no objective measures for how much reassurance a given child needs. The child needs the reassurance she feels she needs...that's true for 40 year olds and even moreso for a four year old.

    I also agree with Pam...as long as the parents are ok with it, let the child sleep with you. Leaving a four year old alone with nightmares even if she wasn't traumatized seems cruel to me.

    There is lots of good information out there about trauma...going back to original routines is the "set" advice. But a traumatized child often needs lots more parent time in child-directed play that helps a child heal at home. An appointment with a therapist is great, but that's only one hour a week a most. The Globe has published some great articles in the past about the Child Witness to Violence Program at BMC and there is good advice in there for how to help a child who has been traumatized. If a child regresses, that child needs to be dealt with at that younger emotional age until the healing occurs and the child spontaneously moves on. That's not encouraging baby like behavior though I know many are going to disagree with me!

    Posted by Adoptive mother of traumatized child January 1, 12 12:28 PM
  1. In my experience, when any child under 6 talks repeatedly about "being hurt" they want to express something that they don't have the words for. Talking about "nightmares" sometimes is really about the fear of the abuse being repeated.

    If discovery of the abuse was delayed, then the child feels an extra sense of violation. Most abuse comes with the intimidation "don't tell anybody or you will REALLY get into trouble". The child is torn between that fear, and the need to tell in order to be safe again. Being abused by two children much older than yourself makes the intimidation factor HUGE. It is even possible for the abuse to be repeated, if the abusers see that there are no consequences. This is what I meant by the time factor.

    I am concerned that this mother says she doesn't know the details, but her child keeps trying to bring up the subject. This child NEEDS her mother to know the details, to rebuild that sense of safety. Anger is a child's way of saying "you aren't listening". Hurting herself is a more desperate measure of the same feeling.

    Dear "Sad", PLEASE just listen to your child tell you the details.This could be with the therapist or at home where the child seems to be trying to say something. Just hold your child in your lap and listen to what she is trying to tell you. This is such an important part of the healing process, please accept this out of my direct experience.

    My response to the child would then be, OK, what can we do today to make you feel safer today? I would pursue those specific things that the child says make her feel safe (within your good judgment as the parent). You will begin to see some good days and some quiet days, just keep working on feeling safe one day at a time.

    After you have some good days, you should also understand that new misbehaving is a sign that there is more to be talked about, and you should ask again, if there is something the child needs to tell you. Keep listening--you will see that the questions change over time.

    Posted by Irene January 4, 12 09:04 PM
  1. Irene, this time I agree with everything you say! Thanks for posting again..this is a really important topic. I agree that this child does need some "special treatment" and not just trying to wean her off this or that behavior. The child is not being manipulative but is genuinely scared and with very good reason. if the mom can help her feel safer now, it will so much help resolve future problems. Again, one hour of counseling a week is great, but the family needs to help this very young child feel safer 24 hours a day at home. A four year old is unlikely to be able to tell what actually happened..though she might. She is more likely to act it out in play and she needs to be allowed to do that as often and as long as she needs to. And, her experience of it, playing out of it, and verbalizing, will I agree change over time. What she remembers and how she plays or talks about it will reflect her four year old capacities and her own psychological truth and not necessarily what adults might call the actual facts. My 12 year old son is convinced he fell off the roof of Boston Medical Center while at preschool pre adoption and also that a doctor dropped him out of a window just after he was born. Don't argue with the child, accept her story and stay with her. Trying to change the subject or trying to change her play will not help her heal.

    I really wish Barbara had consulted some experts on this very sensitive topic.

    Posted by adoptive mother of traumatized child January 5, 12 06:50 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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