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When a Child Tells You Something Terrible

Updated on April 8, 2016

Children in our care may become comfortable enough with us to begin sharing parts of their history that are traumatic. Not only can the history be painful to the child, but to us as well. It is important to know how to respond to a child who has chosen to trust us enough to tell their story.

It is hard to listen to some of the details of trauma that children may bring to us. As uncomfortable as it may be for us, it is important that we do not turn away from the child, or put them off. As the child tells us some of their history, they may enter an “emotional flood state”. This means that the child may become tearful, angry, or agitated in a very intense way. Such emotional intensity may be disturbing to witness. On the other hand, the child may tell the story with what appears to be little or no emotion, leading us to wonder if the story is really true. (It likely is true).

When a child tells us their story of trauma, abuse, or neglect, the story may come out in bits and pieces that seem disjointed. Children who have experienced trauma often have inaccurate memories of the sequence of events, who was involved, and what happened to them. This also can give adults the feeling that perhaps the child is not telling the truth. (They likely are telling the truth.)

How we respond to the child when they reveal traumatic details can be very healing to the child, or it can shut the child down never to talk of it again. It is a core goal of trauma treatment to have the victim speak freely (and repeatedly) about their trauma in detail. The “therapy” of this is that each time the person tells their story, it becomes less frightening to them. Through the telling, the victim of trauma comes to a clearer understanding of their experience.

So, the first important thing we can do to help is to simply listen as the child tells their story. Our listening should be genuine; we should seek privacy for the child. We should turn off the television, and get away from other distractions. We should look at the child, and give them eye contact.

We can also encourage the child to feel comfortable and to speak by asking them simple questions during their story like: “What were you thinking when…?” or “What were you feeling when…?” You can also reflect back to them the obvious feelings that they are expressing: “You must have been very frightened and angry.”

One thing many people know about traumatized children is that they may often feel like they were at fault for their own trauma. We can reassure the child at appropriate times during their story that they were not responsible for the bad things that have happened to them. We can also reassure them that their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors surrounding the traumatic event are normal responses; any child in their situation would have reacted the same way. The child may need specific reassurances to their trauma, such as in the case of a boy who has had a sexual trauma: “What happened to you doesn’t mean you are gay.” We can tell children how positive it is to talk about the trauma; how talking about it is proven to help people . Be sure to thank them for letting them help you.

It’s o.k. to offer to hold the child’s hand, or sit next to them, and to offer them tissues and hugs for their tears. Be sure to ask them for permission if you plan to touch them in any way. You may notice that the emotions that you see them express, while intense, (and which may include anger) are more of a genuine “release” than a threat of getting out of control.

There are several responses to the child that you should not make : We should not, of course, avoid or ignore the child. Do not tell the child to “wait” until they can talk to someone else. Do not allow anything to interrupt the child once they begin to tell their story. Do not give platitudes like “It’s all over now, in the past, forget about it” or “You’re o.k. now, right?” Also, be sure not to verbally attack the person who may have perpetrated the trauma (such as a relative). Our focus should be on the child and their emotions, not the perpetrator. Do not make promises to the child that may not be true, such as “You won’t ever have to see that person again!”

While helping a child to work through their traumatic history can be uncomfortable for us, it may be one of the most compassionate, healing, and loving things we can do for the child. Be honored that the child chose you to tell their story to.

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