Healing From Childhood Trauma: 7 Ways Parents Can Help Their Teen Develop Resilience
Childhood trauma is one of the biggest problems experienced by children and teens, which is often hidden in plain sight. Sadly, childhood trauma can go untreated and result in unhealthy choices and a self-destructive path as children enter adolescence and young adulthood. However, there are steps that parents can actively take in helping their teens to heal from their experience and develop the resilience to lead healthy lives.
Teens who have experienced childhood trauma may have experienced physical, sexual, or verbal abused like being told they are worthless and will never amount to anything. Childhood trauma can also result from teens growing up in a home where they were neglected and couldn’t count on the adults around them. Not addressing recent or past trauma can leave teens at risk of developing problem behaviors resulting in school suspension and academic failure along with a likelihood of drug use and addiction. Research shows that the majority of teens in the juvenile justice system have experienced some form of childhood trauma.
It’s not always easy for parents to recognize when their teen’s difficulties at home or at school are the result of a traumatic event. Adolescent trauma can be difficult to recognize due to teens being unable to trust others or share details of their personal experience. In some cases there may be ongoing trauma that a teen fears will worsen if they talk about it. Trauma from abuse can leave a pre-teen or teen feeling intense emotions such as feelings of guilt that they caused the trauma, insecurity, and embarrassment or shame.
As difficult as it can be for parents to recognize trauma, parents who fear or become aware of their child’s trauma should seek professional assistance in addressing it. Research shows that what can children and teens recover from trauma and develop resilience is having a safe and supportive family in addition to seeking treatment.
Parents can help their teen deal with trauma in the following ways:
1. Set a routine at home and stick with it.
Children and teens need to feel safe, and knowing what to expect in their daily routine at school and at home can help create a sense of safety and reduce any fear or anxiety. Making time to do enjoyable things as a family can help teens heal through healthy family relationships and stable home life.
2. Be Understanding, Patient, and Supportive (especially on the hard days).
Adolescence can be a challenging time for a parent by itself, but when you are the parent of a teen whose experience trauma, there can be intense feelings of guilt for not being able to protect them, and a complicated form of grief over the loss of their childhood. Teens who have experienced trauma often act out, experiment with drugs, or work very hard at trying to pretend that everything is OK, when it really isn’t. Be patient on the difficult days when you feel like giving up or have had it for how they act. Whether they know it or will admit it, your teen will need your support and unconditional love more than ever.
3. Avoid punishing any behaviors that are related to anxiety.
Moodiness is often seen as a typical part of a teen’s life. However, teens who have experienced trauma can sometimes act out with irritability if they encounter anything that triggers a memory of the trauma they experienced. Don’t force them to interact with anyone if they are not comfortable, especially if there is anyone that is directly or indirectly involved in their trauma such as relatives or their peer group. In a published study in the Journal of the California Alliance for the Mentally Ill, brain development of the adolescent can be negatively affected following trauma due to the brain development not being complete until the mid-20s. How a teen’s brain develops greatly depend on both the environment and their experience.
4. Prepare your teen for the unforeseen.
Help your teen prepare for potentially disruptive or difficult events that are foreseen. A part of helping your teen deal with their trauma can involve talking about how to handle situations in which they may have to see their abuser in court, or if they encounter something that can remind them of what happened. For some teens, this can include a place, holiday, family gathering, or an object that may trigger a memory of what happened.
5. Don’t push your teen to talk
As painful as it is to know your child has experienced a trauma. For some parents it can be unbearable for them not to know what exactly happened, and there is a need to know. Do not ask your child or teen to talk about their trauma if they are not ready to. A teen who is pressured into talking about their trauma can relive it and become re-traumatized if they are forced to talk about it before they are ready.
6. Keep your emotions in check when listening to them.
When children and teens are ready to talk about their trauma, it is very important from them to be able to share what happened without them worrying about how (or if) their can parent can handle it. A part of trauma therapy for children and teens can involve a parent preparing themselves for the moment their child is ready to talk about their trauma. If your teen wants to talk the trauma with you, allow them to speak without making any judgments on their perspective. Don’t respond or reveal your own emotional issues with their experience, because they need to be able to talk about their traumatic experience.
7. Connect with a professional.
The most important thing any parent can do for their child is probably the most difficult, which is to be able to talk about what happened, and to get professional help. There are different approaches to addressing trauma with children and teens. Evidenced based approaches that are effective include Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), which is an approach involves learning skills to help process and manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to the traumatic event that occurred. This approach includes working with the parent in developing family communication and support. For younger children trauma focused play therapy uses play, art, and storytelling in which a child can process and express their thoughts and feelings while building their self-esteem and ability to cope. Connecting your child with a therapist can help them talk about what happened, realize that they didn’t do anything wrong, and teach them that they can connect with other people in healthy relationships.
Despite all the evidence of how negatively trauma affects teens, there is always hope for a positive outcome. As human beings our brains and bodies are wired to survive, and we are also wired to overcome with resilience. When parents recognize the symptoms of childhood trauma, they can help their child or teen begin their healing process by learning how to deal with what happened in a healthy way in which their child or teen can learn to calm themselves down, think clearly and positively, and make better decisions. Working through childhood trauma may be a difficult process for a teen, but it is something that they don’t have to do on their own. With support from family and a professional therapist children and teens can discover their resiliency and ability to heal.
“Human’s ability to grow is infinite… when they feel safe”~ Carl Rogers.
Joshua Soto, MA is a Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Intern (639) in private practice in Irvine, CA. Josh specializes in working with pre-teens, teens, and young adults.