Supporting people dealing with trauma

— Skylight Trust

If you or someone you care about are finding it hard to manage your reactions after a distressing event, these ideas for adults and children may help. ​

Be Gentle: After a traumatic experience it is important to be gentle with yourself and allow time to process the event. This also applies when you are supporting others in the same situation.

Sleep and rest: Experiencing a distressing event or a series of events is exhausting. The reactions to this event can be really stressful and that is exhausting too. Get as much sleep as you can – even if taken in snatches when needed. If you find you can't sleep, ensure you take regular breaks. To help you go back to a regular sleeping pattern, you could try having an early evening walk, enjoying a warm drink before bedtime, cutting down on caffeine and alcohol, turning off the TV, or reading until you’re sleepy. For children and young people, you can also think of keeping a light on at night, having others close by, or having a warm bath (if possible).

Breathe: When we concentrate on our breathing – slowly and deeply – a lot of panicky feelings can decrease. Put your hand on your tummy and breathe, so that it pushes against your hand. Focus on your breathing until you feel yourself calm down. Breathe slowly. Do this often.

Try relaxation techniques: Relax every part of your body. Moving up from your toes to your head, bit by bit, tense yourself, then let it go and relax. 

Use these steps:

  1. tighten your toes – hold for a count of ten – then release
  2. flex tightly the muscles in your feet – hold for a count of ten – then release
  3. move slowly up through your body in the same way – legs, tummy, bottom, back, chest, arms, neck, and face - Take plenty of time – no racing at all
  4. finish by breathing in deeply and slowly several times.

After a natural disaster, limit yourself to the amount of time you expose yourself to information about the disaster. Tune in to specific programmes that give you the information you need.

Quietness and peace: Spend time in places where you can be quiet and still. This can be soothing when everything has been so chaotic – around you and inside your mind and body.

Get into nature: Many people find that spending time in a natural place – like a garden or forest, or up in the hills - can be very calming and healing.

Think what comforts you: It might be special foods, a hot drink, being with friends, reading a favourite book, visiting a special place. It could be a hot water bottle or a wheat bag or smelling some fragrant aromatherapy oils.

Be aware that using alcohol or drugs is not helpful at this time, as they can disrupt your sleep and your mood, (both have a depressive effect), and affect your judgement and perspective about things.

If you are supporting children or young people after a distressing event, here are some helpful tips.

For children, a traumatic event can be a shared or personal experience - an earthquake, having an accident at school, witnessing, or experiencing bullying or abuse etc. When a traumatic event takes place, today’s technology and media can bring it right into a child’s home - in detail.

They may react in a wide range of ways to the anxiety, fears or distress the event may cause them. Every child is different. Most children’s key concern usually is: Will this happen to me - or to people that I know and care about? This question lets you know what they need the most – a sense of safety and reassurance.

You can support them by:

  • reminding yourself that your goal is to increase their sense of safety and security. Remember it’s not so much about what you say, but how you make them feel
  • listening to your child to learn how they think or feel about what’s happened. Check in with them, ask them what they know
  • gently correct any mistaken ideas about the event. Encourage questions and answer them. Let them lead the direction of the conversation if possible. If you’re asked why something happened, it’s okay to say if you don’t know why, but be straight forward when you describe the event if you are asked
  • using language that suits their age and stage. Keep it simple and honest
  • keep calm and patient. Some children need to keep asking the same questions, as they try to figure out what’s happened
  • reassure them that feeling upset when something like this happens is okay, and lots of other people will be feeling upset about it too
  • be careful what you let them see or hear through the media. Repeated images or stories can intensify the experience for them
  • help them to see that when something scary or awful has happened, we can always see people who are helping, for example emergency services, friends and whānau, etc
  • keep up routines and make extra time to spend with them. Extra hugs, reassuring smiles and eye contact are important. Bed time is often when good talks can happen
  • it’s okay to grieve, to cry and express sadness when we experience something distressful
  • watch out for a wide range of reactions. Every child is different. Reactions can be physical, emotional, mental, behavioural, or spiritual. Some children may become especially tuned in, anxious or sad about what happened. Others won’t at all
  • if your child is presenting with a really strong reaction it would be good to give them some extra attention and reassurance or seek professional help from your doctor or a counsellor
  • talk about what’s most important to you, as a family. The time after a traumatic event can be a time when some things become very clear. For example, who matters to you the most, what you’re grateful for, what is and isn’t okay in the world, and so on. Talk about these things together, in age appropriate ways
  • if the event involved violence, talk honestly about why criminal violence is not okay. If guns have been used, talk openly about what real guns can do and why they are very dangerous
  • realise that sometimes a child’s reactions can arrive a long time after an event has happened. Questions may pop up weeks, months or even years later. This lets you know that your child has been processing the event in their own time, bit by bit, but that it’s troubling them. Whenever the questions or reactions come, support your child
  • contact Skylight for extra support or to get some wonderful resources for all ages and stages that can assist you to parent an anxious , distressed or traumatised child after a difficult event.

Resources Available at Skylight

Skylight is here to help you through difficult times. We can assist you in a variety of ways with information appropriate for your situation. You are welcome to visit us and receive free information and a support pack from our resource centre and borrow books from the specialist library. We also facilitate Professional Development training and offer Counselling support services for children, young people, family/whānau and individuals who are experiencing tough times.

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