Updated: Aug 26, 2021
As parents, we may want to protect our children from every negative thing possible but that task is impossible. We cannot foresee every event that will happen in our child's life. When a child or teenager experiences a traumatic event, these can range from a pandemic, community violence, bullying, natural disasters, medical trauma, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, violence, and grief, all of which are completely out of our control. It can leave us feeling very helpless.
With the right support, however, we can equip our children with the skills they need to regulate their emotions and deal with their trauma in a safe environment and be on the quick road to recovery.
How does trauma affect my child?
When a child experiences a traumatic event, they share is an overwhelming threat to their safety. A child perceives a situation in which they are powerless to overcome it. It may seem counterintuitive, but even infants are affected by and can remember events that threaten their sense of safety. They develop PTSD due to this sense of powerlessness from sexual abuse, witnessing violence, physical neglect, emotional abuse, parental separation, and even medical interventions.
Studies have shown that children who witness traumatic events, even though they were not physically hurt showed symptoms of trauma. The study showed that some of the children and youth experienced flashbacks and nightmares or when they were triggered by reminders of the incident. As therapists, we found that sometimes parents may not think that their children are affected, but children who are exposed to violence tend to have more depressive symptoms. Without intervention, whilst they may not be at immediate risk of harm, the traumatic event they witnessed may leave long-lasting scars. Children experience increased norepinephrine (a similar chemical to adrenalin) production in their bodies, and this causes the body to be in "fight or flight" mode all the time. When that happens, there is no ‘off switch’ and the tense, nervous, frightened feelings are there for prolonged periods of time.
Signs of stress in my child
If your child displays the following signs, they may be displaying trauma responses. It is best to seek out a mental health professional.
impaired function in daily life,
adjustment and behavioral problems,
weight loss or gain, and
sustained feelings of hopelessness or helplessness.
Failure to receive treatment may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
How does Play Therapy help Children exposed to Trauma?
Play Therapy helps children in many ways. In Play therapy, your child receives emotional support and they learn to understand their own feelings and thoughts. Oftentimes, they may act or play out the traumatic or difficult life experiences to make sense of the situation. They also learn useful skills such as how to manage relationships with the people around them and conflicts appropriately.
For children ages 3 -16 years old, play therapy is a natural and non-threatening mental health intervention for children and youth as "play" is a natural way for children to communicate and express themselves. Play is vital to every child’s social, emotional, cognitive, physical, creative, and language development it aids in making learning concrete for all children and young people including those who find verbal communication difficult.
What does a Play Therapist do?
Children and youth usually find talking about their difficulties and stresses challenging and play therapy help them to "play" out some of these experiences and explore their issues at their own pace. Play Therapists go through thorough training in child development and have learned how to pick up important cues to understand the trauma responses and work towards healing your child.
Therapists are trained to use play, a child’s natural form of expression, to understand and communicate with children and youth about their feelings, thoughts, and behavior. The relationship that develops between your child and their Therapist is very important. It is imperative that your child feels comfortable, safe, and understood. This type of trusting environment makes it easier for the child to express their thoughts and feelings.
Each session lasts for 45 minutes and is held at the same time and place each week. We stress that consistency is very important in building a trusting relationship. Play therapy interventions can last for as little as 12 weeks and as long as several years. It is important not to hurry the process and to let your child set the pace so that they do not become overwhelmed.