When memories are not integrated, they can be triggered in painful ways. Learn how sharing memories in a safe way can help kids integrate their trauma memories.
Why Is This Child Getting Triggered?
Have you ever noticed your child react with fear in a situation that’s perfectly safe?
Or she refuses to do something that you know she loves?
You wonder why she’s being so irrational. I’m guessing it might have something to do with trauma and the brain.
Because, sometimes this kind of scenario happens when a kid is subconsciously triggered by a traumatic experience from the past.
In this post, we’ll discuss:
- Making the connection – between your child’s extreme emotional response and a traumatic experience
- How to help him share the memory in a safe way to reprocess the trauma
- Some effective tools you can teach your child to calm his strong emotions
But before I start, I want to make it clear that this article is meant for when your child is functioning well but has an occasional fear or two.
If your child has been through a traumatic experience and has nightmares, seems anxious, afraid, depressed or withdrawn, please get professional help. Trauma can cause PTSD in children, and there is effective therapies that will help your child feel better.
That being said, with more minor traumas, you can help you kids and teach them how to heal from trauma. I’ll talk about this in detail soon.
But before I get into the nitty gritty details, I want to recommend an excellent book that inspired me to write this post. That’s The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel.
As a parent, I connected to the intelligent and easy to implement ideas in this paperback for raising emotionally healthy children.
But the surprise was that my kids loved the book, too, because it’s got a handful of interesting cartoons (and an excellent emotions chart!) that explain the techniques in the book.
And, as a therapist, I love how Dan Siegel brings neuroscience down to layman’s terms for anyone to understand! (Which is why I recommend any of his books. Each one is a gem).
Now that credit is given where it’s due, let’s get down to how you can help your child heal from trauma.
Imagine this scenario:
Your 8-year-old daughter falls and hits her arm lightly on a chair. She begins to cry hysterically and insists that her arm is broken. It’s pretty unlikely that her arm is broken, because it was literally a small bump. This is not the first time, either. You wonder about her extreme reaction. Hmm… you remember when she broke her arm two years ago. Could it be her reaction is stemming from fear?
The answer is yes.
Actually, this happened to me, and thanks to what I learned from Dr. Dan Siegel, I knew what to do to help my daughter.
After she calmed down, we were able to talk about her reaction, why it happens, and what she can do about it. My daughter now understood why she felt so afraid anytime she hit her arm. She gained insight and tools – to deal with the unpleasant emotions that were associated with this memory.
So if you want to know how your children can heal from trauma, this is a great way to start. I’ll explain how you can do this, too, for your kids.
But first, you’ve got to realize what’s going on. And the best way to do that is to realize that your child is always irrational for a reason.
Either he’s hungry or tired. (Which happens to me, too).
Or she’s a teenager, so she’s entitled to be irrational for a couple of years!
Seriously though, if your child is upset and it seems irrational, that might be the case because he’s emotionally triggered by something unrelated to what’s going on right now.
Memory, Trauma, and the Brain
Which is a process that happens because of the way our memories work. So, let’s go through a short explanation of memory.
- Memory is all about association. Memories link to one another based on experience, and connected experiences are later retrieved by an association that was linked to that memory. For example, while hiking in a pine tree forest, a memory of your grandmother surfaces. You wonder where that memory came from until it suddenly occurs to you, “Oh, right, Granny used pine-scented potpourri satchels in the closets.”
- When we recall a memory, the present experience influences that memory and changes it. Even if you believe your memory is accurate, it may have been distorted by your recollections of the memory.
You and your husband are reminiscing about your first date. Somehow, you disagree about which drink you ordered. He insists you got a Coke and you know it was a Diet Sprite.
3. When our life experiences link memories to one another, we form expectations about the outcomes of similar experiences. This influences how we behave in a related situation.
For example, your mom would cry whenever she looked at the bank statements that came in the mail. When you login to your online bank account, your mood always seems to change and you expect the worst.
So, here’s what happens in your child’s brain when he experiences a traumatic experience.
The trauma memory is intertwined with strong emotions such as fear, pain, or hopelessness. And, the memory is stored with various associations, or reminders, of the original experience. Those associations, when recalled, bring up the same strong emotion as the trauma itself, and he’s not even aware of it. All he knows is that he feels bad.
And that’s where you can help by teaching your child what you know about trauma and the brain and following the next couple of steps – to help him heal from his trauma.
How to Heal from Trauma
When an association to a trauma memory is painful for your child, you can gently explain about memory, trauma, and the brain. In simple language, let him know how our memories connect to each other and influence our expectations.
Because, the first step to integration is awareness.
As Dan writes, “Sometimes parents hope that their children will “just forget about” painful experiences… what kids really need is… healthy ways to integrate implicit and explicit memories, turning even painful experiences into sources of power and self-understanding (page 77).”
As a parent, you can teach your child about trauma and the brain to help him understand his emotional reactions. Instead of letting painful memories burden him, he can use the power of recall to reprocess and integrate those experiences.
In a sensitive way, ask your child to share with you his painful memory. If that’s too hard for him, explain that he has an internal DVD player in his head, and he can hold the virtual remote in his hand. As he tells the story, he can choose where to ‘pause’ or ‘rewind’ or ‘fast forward.’ That way, he can control the storytelling.
This storytelling helps his brain do the work of integrating the memory. He is reworking his narrative as he tells it to you, a safe listener. Next time he recalls this memory, it will be less painful.
Then, there’s one more step to this process that’s really important.
Teach Your Child Emotional Regulation Skills
That’s teaching our kids real-life skills to deal with their unpleasant feelings. Because of the way trauma memories are triggered, it can be really painful. You can give your child real tools to deal with his emotions.
Here are some ideas that you can use.
- Take 5 slow deep breaths.
- Sort through mixed emotions with this art activity.
- Talk to your fear. Explain to the afraid part of you that you are safe right now, and you’ll be okay.
- Do an activity that you enjoy to distract yourself and take the edge off the pain.
- Go to your safe place
Help your child gain awareness that his feelings change. While he felt really afraid before, now he might feel calmer.
He can influence his own feelings.
When your child learns that the skills that he uses really work, he feels in control! And that can make all the difference, knowing that he already knows how to heal from trauma.
You are an awesome parent already. Now that you know more about memory, trauma, and the brain, you’ll be able to up that awesomeness some more to really help your child.
Don’t be surprised when you’re in a similar situation and your child is less reactive.
That means he’s starting to heal from trauma by dealing with the trauma – and not denying it.
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