Domestic violence is an unspoken problem but wields a significant effect on a child’s well-being, growth and mental health. As many as 275 million children worldwide are exposed to violence in the home. Children of domestic violence are often the silent victims. Very young children – even as young as babies and toddlers – can become “stressed out” or traumatized when their developing sense of trust is threatened by repeated exposure to violence as well as other events such as a serious car accident or losing a trusted caregiver.
The single most common reaction babies and toddlers have to trauma is some form of “reliving” the experience through dreams and thoughts that may seem like pictures in their minds. Children will often recreate what happened during play and certain sights, sounds or smells can also trigger a reminder of the traumatic event. Other responses children might have include greater emotional distress like getting upset more easily, throwing more temper tantrums or clinging to adults, and acting more like a baby than they used to, which is especially true for toddlers.
How Parents and Caregivers Can Help Young Children Handle Trauma
Very young children that have experienced trauma need to regain a sense of trust in the world. Providing a safe and protecting environment is important for helping children overcome traumatic experiences like witnessing domestic violence. Here are five ways parents and caregivers can help young children through a traumatic experience from our online series Questions About Kids.
- Increase your child’s sense of security
Let your child know that you are always available to provide comfort. Very young children may need longer periods of holding and cuddling, repeated positive statements and encouragement, and other methods of soothing. Security objects like a blanket or stuffed toys might also be helpful.
- Increase your child’s sense of control
Provide opportunities for your child to feel like they have control over their lives in ways they can handle. For example, offer choices for certain everyday events such as what toys to play with or whether to leave the bedroom door open or closed at night. At the same time, parents should still gently guide the kinds of choices your child makes to let them know you are in control too.
- Maintain a routine and prepare your child for changes
Having a routine provides a sense of predictability for a child. If changes occur, prepare your child in advance so they don’t feel that things are out of control again.
- Help your child as they cope with the trauma
When your child shows distress let them know you understand how your child feels. Reassure your child that it’s okay to be sad, scared or mad and help your child express their feelings with words. Distract your child by helping them focus on more positive and enjoyable things.
- Take care of yourself
When you’re taking care of yourself and healing from your own traumatic experiences, your child will also benefit. You’ll be better able to focus on building a strong, supportive relationship with your child.
This series of free flyers (available in PDFs) helps answer important questions that parents and caregivers have about the psychological development of infants and toddlers. They are written by experts from CEED (Center for Early Education and Development) at UMN CEHD.
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Reprinted with permission of the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) at CEHD UMN.