Mommy, Make The Bad Dreams Go Away: Helping A Child Overcome Trauma

Trauma can happen to anyone, but when the victim is a child, the how and why of the trauma often takes a backseat to what to do about it. That’s because children are so vulnerable and it’s up to adults, parents and caregivers and concerned others, to step in and step up to protect the young child and help him or her overcome trauma.

Not the least of the aftereffects of trauma is the awful nightmares and flashbacks of the traumatic event or incident. When your child comes to you, crying and upset, and begs you to make the bad dreams go away, what is your response? Do you feel equipped to handle the situation?

If you don’t think you can effectively deal with the situation, above all, seek professional help. It isn’t a sign of weakness or any indictment of your parenting abilities. Think of what’s at stake here – the future happiness and well-being of your child. That should take precedence and quash any misgivings you may have about seeking help.

Here are some other suggestions on how you can help a child overcome trauma.

Horrific Incidents – Like the Mass Shootings in Aurora, Colorado

What if your child was among the hundreds of individuals at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado when a suspected gunman opened fire and a dozen were killed and 58 were injured? Not that a lot of young children were necessarily in attendance at the midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" movie, but any child or adolescent would suffer from the traumatic incident, the worst mass shooting in recent history.

According to reports of the tragedy, one of the victims was, in fact, a six-year-old girl.

While it is inconceivable that any human being would intentionally seek out and kill innocent bystanders, the sad truth is that these things do happen. It’s not useful to speculate what caused the person to go on this shooting spree, not if you’re the parents of or are yourself one of those immediately affected by the tragedy.

Bad dreams will likely continue for quite some time – both for you and for your child who may have witnessed the bloody attack.

Dealing with Anxiety and Fear Following Trauma

So, what do you do? What can you do or say to your child who is in such need of comfort? Mental health experts say that it is common for the survivors of traumatic events, like the one in Colorado, to feel anxiety and fear. Parents across the country who are trying to cope with how to discuss such events with their children may be understandably confused as well as feeling at a loss to handle it effectively themselves.

  • Children sense tension and anxiety around them. – As adults, you cannot help but feel tense and anxious following a traumatic event. Children see that and pick up on it like radar. They also experience the kind of helplessness and lack of control that such events engender. But, unlike adults, children – especially very young children and adolescents, lack the experience to be able to put what happened into any kind of perspective that would help them cope with their feelings.
  • Children respond differently to trauma. – Every child is going to react in different ways to what they’ve seen and heard and felt following a traumatic incident. Some children may grasp a little more of the facts, depending on their age and maturity. However, it doesn’t stretch the truth to say that all children will react with some sort of anxiety as a result, especially since they may view what happened as a personal threat or danger to themselves. It’s just that they don’t know what to do about it.
  • Talking with children following trauma is vital. – The most important thing parents can do, say the mental health experts, is to talk with your child after a traumatic event. This is essential no matter what the child’s age or level of maturity. Even if your child seems relatively unaffected, it does not mean that there aren’t residual effects or consequences of the tragedy. Encourage your child to talk about his or her fears. Be open and honest about any potential or real consequences to your family.

Tips for Parents on Helping a Child Overcome Trauma

Mental Health America (MHA) has prepared a factsheet that can be used to educate yourself about how to help your child overcome trauma. While it isn’t a rigid how-to, the recommendations do provide helpful ideas as you begin structuring your approach to dealing with the aftereffects of trauma and how it affects your child.

  1. Reassure your child frequently. You are the protectors of your children, to the extent that you can be. What your child needs most is to be comforted and reassured that he or she is safe. Don’t neglect this important and critical duty of parenting – when your child really needs it.
  2. Be honest and open. You know you don’t have all the answers, but that isn’t as important as being honest with your children and open about what happened during and following the traumatic event or tragedy.
  3. Encourage expression of the child’s feelings. Some children may be reluctant to open up and talk about what they’re feeling. They may be confused, fearful, clingy or depressed and unable to communicate those emotions. If they can express themselves verbally, so much the better, but there are other ways for young children to let you know what’s going on with them. Encourage them to draw or observe them playing to get a better idea of what’s bothering them.
  4. Maintain a normal routine as much as possible. Your child needs stability and the normal household routine following a trauma. So, as far as it is possible to do so, try to ensure that things go on in the home like they would on any other day. Adhere to the same bedtime routines, the schedule for getting chores done and tending to homework, going to church and participating in family activities. It is such a demonstration of stability and normalcy that will help your child gradually begin to reacclimatize himself or herself to life post-trauma.

Very Young Children

If your child is pre-school age, there are special precautions to take. Behavior that you may see in your younger child after a trauma includes bed-wetting, sucking of the thumbs, baby talk, or fear of sleeping in bed alone.

Your child needs reassurance and comfort frequently – just as older children do, but on a more intense level. That’s because they’re afraid, and it is a very real fear. They aren’t misbehaving on purpose or being bad, not in any respect. They want to hear from you that they are safe, that you will protect them and keep them from harm.

How can you do this? Talk with them at night to reassure them before they go to beg. Give them extra hugs and kisses during the day. If you are away during the day, call them and talk with them at frequent intervals, again, reassuring and comforting them.

Playtime is another opportunity for you to help a younger child overcome trauma. You can make sure that play is constructive, to serve as an outlet for them to get out their anger or express their fears. Remember that each child will have different fears, so it’s important to find out what it is that your child is most fearful of. Be sure to answer all the questions they ask in as open and honest a manner as possible.

Children in Grade School

With the somewhat older child, those that are in grade school, the tendency is to ask a lot of questions. As parents, don’t steer clear of answering whatever questions your child comes to you with following a traumatic event. The simplest language is the best. Avoid anything too technical or lengthy descriptions. They won’t understand it and, frankly, that’s not what they need.

Above all, don’t tell a child that’s afraid or worried not to worry. This will only increase their anxiety and their fear.

Make no false reassurances, because children sense when something isn’t genuine. You can’t tell them that nothing like this will ever happen in the family again, because it might. But you can reassure them that you will do everything possible to keep your child safe and always will try to keep them safe.

Since fears generally intensify toward bedtime, it may be wise to spend time with your child until he or she falls asleep.

Keep your child shielded from constant news coverage of a traumatic event. Monitor television viewing to spare them from graphic images and the incessant recounting of the events. This is because children may mistake the coverage to mean that the same thing has happened again. Instead of TV watching, schedule something else for your child to do at that time, perhaps with you participating as well. This could include drawing, playing games, or some other sort of activity.

If you don’t know how to answer a child’s question, either because you don’t have all the facts or aren’t sure what to say, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know. But do reassure your child that such tragedies are extremely rare and that you will do all you can to protect your child from any such thing happening in the future. Explain that it’s normal to feel afraid and that even adults get afraid following a traumatic event and have trouble dealing with it. Follow up by reiterating that you will do all that you can to ensure their safety.


When your child reaches adolescence, he or she may tend to minimize or downplay any fears after a trauma. Don’t be fooled by this false sense of bravado or protestations that they’re not bothered by what happened.

It’s still important to keep open the lines of communication and to talk about any emotional, financial, physical or other aspects of the traumatic event. Keep in mind that adolescents may resort to acting-out behavior or act in a manner like they used to when they were younger.

Since adolescents may gravitate toward discussing the traumatic events with their friends, encourage families of your adolescent’s peers to get together to discuss what happened and help reassure all the children involved.

Just as it’s important to monitor the TV viewing of children in grade school following a traumatic event, it’s just as wise to do so for adolescents. Also monitor the type of information they’re checking out on the Internet regarding the traumatic incident.

Regarding how long nightmares and fears will go on in any child, whether it’s a very young child, children in grade school or adolescents, it’s normal for such distressing emotions to be around for a while. But if they persist for a long period of time, despite all the efforts of parents to comfort and reassure their children that they’ll do everything they can to continue to keep them safe, that’s when it should be concerning to parents.

If an adolescent begins exhibiting signs of depression or other more serious emotional problems, recognize that they may require supervision as well as some kind of professional support.

If you are worried about your child’s reaction to what happened or have ongoing concerns about his or her emotional health and/or behavior, get in touch with the child’s mental health professional at school, or contact someone at your community mental health center.

Life Goes On

This is a chaotic, turbulent world. We cannot protect our children from every bad thing that happens, either around them or to them. We must do our best to keep them safe and to reassure and comfort them when something terrible does occur that frightens them or shakes their confidence in the safety of their world.

We cannot shut ourselves or our children off from the world, but we can do whatever possible to help them be better prepared to deal with traumatic events after they do occur. Remember that children sense our own fears and will react in a similar manner if you behave in a hysterical, angry or out-of-control fashion. Try to remain as calm as possible when talking with or being around children post-trauma. If you do have an inappropriate outburst, apologize to your children immediately and explain that you were upset and may have overreacted, but that you didn’t mean to frighten your child.

Is there any timetable you can count on for making those bad dreams go away? As parents keeping close tabs on your child’s emotional health and well-being, you will most likely be the first to know when your child is getting back to some semblance of normalcy. In the meantime, being extra loving – but not smothering – and comforting isn’t at all a bad thing.

There is still hope.

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