From the moment Adam and Eve sinned, our perfect world became broken. In this brokenness came death, destruction, and natural disasters. When you become a parent for the first time, you start to understand love in a way you never had before. Every part of your being wants to shield your child safely in your arms, forever safe from this broken world. The hard reality is that none of us are in control of what happens to our children, and they will face things we hoped they never would. The good news is that when they face traumatic events we have the power to directly impact their healing in a way others can’t. As parents we are our children's safe place, and need to do whatever we can to continue to create that safe place for them as they heal.
When your child goes through trauma, their whole world will be turned upside down. The foundation of safety and control they once thought was there has been pulled out from underneath their feet. In these moments of chaos and uncertainty, one of the best things you can do for them is acknowledge reality. Yes, it happened, and it hurts. It's not the way it's supposed to be. Talk about it, don't ignore it, and let them talk about it too, when they're ready. No one can protect them from trauma forever, but you can help them name it and you can be a solid presence in it.
As a parent with a child dealing with trauma your instinct is going to be to jump in and try to fix it. Unfortunately trauma is not something you can fix, and the best thing you can do is work on being as patient as possible with your child as they process through their pain. It will take longer than you hoped for. You can create spaces and opportunities for them to open up, but do what you can to leave control in their hands. The more you give them space to open up, the more likely they will. The more you pressure them to share information or to talk about what they are feeling before they are ready to share, the more they will push away. When your child does start to open up, they may become overwhelmed by talking about their trauma and shut down again; I encourage you to continue being as patient as possible in the process of it all. It’s important to create an open and supportive environment where they feel they again have a sense of control and know that you are in their corner no matter what.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV).
In 6 Results of Good Listening, David Mathis notes, “Poor listening rejects; good listening embraces. Poor listening diminishes the other person, while good listening invites them to exist, and to matter.” Listening is difficult for all of us. It’s hard to feel like we are helping if we aren’t saying anything. But listening is doing. We would prefer to speak the right words to make everything better quickly, but the truth is your child's feelings need to be felt in order to move towards healing.
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 NIV).
When your child is opening up to you about their trauma, see it as an opportunity for them to heal. Like squeezing poison from a wound, allow them the space to just express what they are feeling and processing. Allowing your child the space to be real, honest, and broken without having to feel like they have to say the right things or have evidence to support their feelings will help them see you as a safe place for vulnerability. If you feel like there is something you need to say, ask them for permission before you do so. Asking will help them still feel in control during a time they are probably feeling very exposed. “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13 NIV).
Help them focus on the basics of self-care. Encourage them to eat, drink water, and get adequate sleep. In the midst of a crisis your child needs to find a baseline again to start their healing, and by encouraging them to just focus on the priority of their physical and mental health in this season can help free up more room in their life to heal.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 NIV).
God promises to walk with us through every challenge we face in life. He carries our burdens and guides us to peace.
As a counselor, the parents of my children's clients are often frustrated when their child doesn’t open up to them the way they wish they would, and question if they have done something wrong as a parent. It’s normal and healthy for children to seek spaces to open up outside of the home. I often ask parents if they told their parents everything growing up, and I find the answer is always no. If your child is struggling with trauma I believe it’s wise to encourage your child to see a Christian counselor.
“Surely you need guidance to wage war, and victory is won through many advisers” (Proverbs 24:6 NIV).
Oftentimes it’s easier for them to open up to someone they don’t know because they won’t have to filter what they say in fear of hurting or worrying someone they love. A professional counselor will also be able to help them cope with the triggers from their trauma that they will experience, and empower them with the tools to increase distress tolerance and decrease anxiety.
As you work on creating a safe and open environment to help support your child as they process their trauma you will also need support of your own. In order to best support your child through trauma, it’s beneficial to find a Christian counselor of your own to help you process information, express the emotions you are experiencing, and cope with your own secondary trauma. Friends and family can also be a good source of support, but there may be aspects of the situation you will need to keep private in respect of your child and an outside therapist would ensure that privacy.
As you walk with your child through their trauma, continue to keep your focus on creating a safe and stable environment to help support their healing. Continue to reaffirm your love for them, and remind them you will always be there to support them. As they walk through the instability and chaos of trauma gently remind them of God’s unfailing love for them. Remind them of the truth that He will never leave or forsake them, that he is for them, and has great plans for them. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Deb Koster