Recently, I have received several questions from parents and healthcare providers about how they can best care for a child who may have experienced trauma. This question is somewhat loaded. To consider a good approach or treatment plan, one must ask many questions and understand more about the traumatic circumstances for the child and the support system around them.
As a starting place, it does help to understand the basics to create a foundation of knowledge upon which we can build our training, education, and capacity to better care for children safely and effectively.
A Better Understanding of Childhood Trauma
Trauma is any stressful event that is prolonged or unpredictable and results in overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety, and helplessness. Childhood trauma occurs when an actual or perceived threat of danger overwhelms a child’s ability to self-regulate emotional reactions and coping skills. This may include neurodevelopment, identity formation, cognitive processing, body integrity, and the ability to self-regulate effect and behavior.
“Traumatic events have a profound sensory impact on young children. Their sense of safety may be shattered by frightening visual stimuli, loud noises, violent movements, and other sensations associated with an unpredictable, frightening event. The frightening images tend to recur in the form of nightmares, new fears, and actions/play that reenact the event” – National Child Trauma Stress Network (NCTSN)
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/populations-at-risk), Children who are at greater risk from the effects of trauma include;
– children who had physical exposure to trauma
– who witnessed a traumatic event
– who were near the location of the disaster or incident
– who had a preexisting mental health issue
-whose caregivers experienced emotional difficulty
– who had preexisting or consequent family life stressors such as divorce or loss of job, previous loss or trauma experience
– those who have a limited support network.
Causes of Childhood Trauma
We all experience events that can cause us to become upset or afraid. However, when an event threatens or causes harm to a person’s physical or emotional well-being, it can be categorized as a traumatic event. Some children are born with different biological tendencies in processing or responding to stressful events. Different children have different levels of resilience; some are more adaptable, while others are more cautious.
Some events that may cause trauma for children include hospitalization/medical trauma, experiences of abuse (physical, verbal and sexual), traumatic natural disasters/events, being a refugee of war or terrorism, community and school violence, neglect, traumatic grief and death, divorce, early childhood, and complex trauma.
Working with children who have experienced trauma requires more sensitivity to their comfort and physical cues/gestures. Additional training and knowledge prepare pediatric massage therapists and parents in supportive ways to interact based on a child’s emotional age and use soothing non-verbal interaction.
When working with children who have experienced trauma, it is best to let them feel in control and empowered during the therapeutic session.
Massage and Touch Therapy is about giving power back to the child.