Helping the Child Who Is in Shock or PTSD

Portrait of a scared little boy child. The kid covered his mouth with his hands, closed his eyes. due to stress and shock.

Probably every child has at least one accident or mishap in their life that leaves them shaken, upset or even terrified. What adults would consider minor, like falling off a bike or seeing a frightening movie or news story, might leave them feeling helpless and afraid. Some experiences that children are overwhelmed by can have the same but perhaps more extreme reactions deep within their psyche. There are a myriad of life experiences that children are not mentally equipped to process and resolve in the ways adults can who understand and rationalize what happens to them, to return to a state of calm and equilibrium. 

Peter Levine and Maggie Klein in Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing, share some wisdom in terms of how parents and caregivers can help a child recover from the overwhelming and shocking experiences that occur during childhood.

They begin by saying how important it is to pay close attention to the child’s bodily responses because one of your jobs is to not interrupt what they call the natural cycle for coming out of shock. Parents can do this with infants and young children as well as older children.

They instruct that the first step is to provide physical proximity to help a child feel more secure. This could involve having a child sit on the adult’s lap, or, with an older child, placing a hand on the child’s shoulder or arm. The goal is to help the child feel safe and connected.

The authors stress how in those moments of shock a child experiences a surge of what they call traumatic energy. Caring adults can help the child by giving them a way to release that energy, which not only helps them feel better but makes it less likely that the experience will be encoded in the child’s mind as a trauma.

The messages that parents and caregivers want to convey through their responses are:

  • “Safety and warmth so the child knows she is not alone;
  • Connection to your grounded and centered adult presence;
  • Confidence that you can help the child surrender to his sensations, emotions, and involuntary reactions as he moves toward release and relief by not interrupting this process due to your own fears;
  • Trust in your child’s innate wisdom that allows her body to release her moves towards resolution and recovery as her own person at her own pace.”
Scared african kid looking at camera covering blanket in bed

Parents need to be aware of their own body language because children will read the clues adults are projecting that infer, or not, that the adult is actually confident and that the child is safe. They advise caregivers to practice being poised and equipped to follow these guidelines whenever they have frightening, overwhelming and shocking experiences. By learning that you can guide yourself through a process that lets you understand, accept and then release traumatic energy, you can gain confidence when you need to be comforting a child who is going through similar sensations.

In these days of having to manage the stresses of living through a pandemic, children can pick up on our levels of fear and anxiety. So they benefit when they can see us navigate situations that enable them to feel safe and secure. Being equipped with strategies to help children manage and release their traumatic energy can reduce the potential for long-term impact, leaving parents feeling more confident that they are actually helping their child during stressful situations.

Being aware of these practical ways to respond to normal frightening and shocking experiences in a child is a way to build confidence and resilience, helping them know they can survive and manage those strong emotional reactions. It gives them tools that allow a return to equilibrium without being emotionally scarred.

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. Can you remember a time in your childhood when you experienced something that was frightening, overwhelming, and probably shocking your emotional system? How did the adults around you respond? Were they able to help you return to a state of equilibrium or were you left with memories of fear that influence you even today?
  2. What do you need to do to help you prepare to respond the next time a child in your care experiences something shocking, overwhelming or frightening?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute