Can Parents’ Reactions Traumatize Kids?

Depressed, traumatized young woman sitting on floor.

Peter Levine created a powerful approach to healing trauma called Somatic Experiencing. Dr. Levine shares important information for parents to consider about an all-too-common interactive dynamic when a child experiences a highly stressful, often dangerous moment, such as taking a fall from a bike or rushing up to an unknown dog walking with its owner who growls and lunges at the child. Moments like these have elements of potentially traumatizing a child, often with the kind of trauma that can fairly quickly resolve and leave no lasting emotional scars IF handled properly by the adult in charge of the child.

He encourages parents that in those moments the child is having a biologically-based shock reaction that he says is meant to pass. Obviously parents need to attend to any physical needs the child has but he stresses that the very first thing a parent needs to do is to take a moment and do a kind of self-check served to calm the parent, to release any of the shock from the instantaneous stress they just experienced. It’s like the adage when in a plane to put the oxygen mask on you first before giving it to the child sitting next to you.

Upset girl closing ears while her parents yelling at her.

He says that when parents see their child in a potentially dangerous situation, they typically have an instant fear response that immediately is translated into anger. They can scream things like, “Why didn’t you do what we’ve told you to do?”  “What’s wrong with you?  How stupid can you be?  Don’t you know how dangerous that is?” 

In this case, the parent is reacting from his or her overwhelming fear for the child’s welfare, which makes sense, but the impact on the child can be devastating and can prevent the normal process of recovering from the initial trauma from occurring. The child not only has to deal with the traumatic reactions from the initial experience, but also must deal with the surge of fear and/or terror because the parent has emotionally abandoned the child who needs to receive comfort and safety in this terrifying moment.

Peter Levine teaches that trauma produces a kind of profound, powerful energy that results from the infusion of the neurochemicals the brain releases to allow the person to have the power to fight or flee. When that traumatic energy is finally released as a result of a parent being comforting and appreciative of how terrified the child was, the child’s experience does not result in any long-lasting issues and the momentary trauma is quickly resolved.

Children have a lack of judgement and impulsivity that goes along with childhood and can put them in danger. If parents chronically respond with explosive words and body language when children make these kinds of mistakes, children learn the world is unsafe when a crisis occurs. They learn to wonder how much they are verbally going to be attacked, blamed, shamed and emotionally abandoned by the very person who should be their protector. As a result, they then experience a second powerful surge of fear and in the process, had no release of the initial traumatic energy. They learn in these moments how scary their parents can become and how alone they are at the very time when they desperately need to be comforted and given “emotional oxygen.”

Peter Levine says that he gives parents guided exercises. With them they can learn to feel the fear in their body. They learn to consciously let it move through them so they stop the chain reaction of their fear expressed as anger that adds to their child’s traumatic experience. He calls it a kind of “body mindfulness.” Once parents do this, they can be more present for their child and better able to meet their child’s need to release their traumatic energy. 

He says, “…then the parents are able to be there in the present and they can come up to the child, depending on the age, if it’s a young child, to take the child in their arms to hold him or her.  If it’s a child who is a little bit older, they can have the child sit by their side while they put their hand on their upper back to give them support and just say, ‘Sweetheart, it’s okay, you just had a fall. You’re gonna be okay and I’m just going to be here with you.’”  

Scared little girl sitting in bed traumatized and in fear, nightmares and psychological distress concept.

Once all the fear reactions have resolved, probably many hours from the initial incident, the parent can talk about what the child should (or should not) have done to teach the them how to avoid putting themselves in danger. This should be done in a safe, gentle and loving way that does not reactivate the fear reaction from the original event.

We all need to learn to activate these trauma-sensitive reactions before we must use them because it is too hard in the moment of our own fear reaction to put them into action. Peter Levin has more detailed information and exercises in his book, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience that guides parents through valuable exercises for that next possible scary event in their children’s lives. Being prepared like this is a gift parents can give their children to help them avoid unnecessary trauma-reactions that can be unnecessarily deep and impactful.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Can you recall a moment when your child did something that put him or her in danger?  What was your reaction? Did your own fear convert into anger? Can you recall how your anger impacted how safe your child felt with you in that moment?
  2. What are some ways you can better prepare yourself to take that split second to regroup your own fear reaction to one in which you are focused on helping your child discharge his or her traumatic energy? 

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute