My child has experienced something awful in their young life – how do I know if it is affecting them?

People tell me all of the time that their young child or baby doesn’t remember … their painful medical interventions, a car accident, the death or loss of a loved one, the verbal or physical fighting between parents/caregivers or witnessed violence.  Even though it makes the conversation uncomfortable, I always have to tell them that their child probably does remember.  It’s really common for adults to believe that children who do not speak, cannot remember.  This is probably because their ability to form verbal memory has not developed and they will not speak about the event(s).  They will, however, act it out in a lot of different ways.

So, what are common things to look for in my young child, if they have been affected?

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

They might experience trouble with bodily functions.

  • Does your child struggle with sleep?  This might include difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.  It might also include nightmares or night terrors.  
  • Have you noticed continued challenges with feeding or eating – hoarding food, holding food in the mouth for long periods of time, binge eating, refusing to eat?
  • Are you or have you experienced prolonged challenges with potty training or regular bathroom use?

Children who have experienced scary events might

also show delays in their development.  

  • Has your child struggled with crawling or walking, running into things or frequently getting hurt?
  • Have people mentioned that it’s difficult to understand your child, even if you feel like you can understand them just fine?
  • Does your child cling to you instead of playing with other children (even after having some time to feel comfortable)?  Do they struggle more than typical in play with others?  Are teachers or caregivers concerned about their behavior?  Are you concerned?

They express noticeable challenges with their emotions.

  • Do they cry more than seems normal?  Are they hard to comfort (refuse hugs, throw things at you, hurt themselves or things they care about)?
  • When they do have a temper tantrum does it seem like it lasts longer or is more intense than other kids their age?  They might really struggle with calming themselves down.
  • Have you noticed they are usually angry or easily irritated?  Or are they often very sad, really shy, or super worried about things all of the time?
  • Maybe they seem really distant or are hard to connect with?  You are trying to play with them, but they turn away or they make the play really difficult to follow and get upset easily.

You notice interesting play or body reactions.

  • Kids will use play to express what their bodies are feeling.  Since the memories are not verbal, they live in your child’s body as physical reminders of what happened.  Play could include aspects of the scary event and how it made their body feel.  This might include increased hyperactivity that cannot be explained.  It might also look like spacing out/tuning out during play or sudden mood changes in play.
  • You might also notice changes in your child or their body when you drive past the place of the accident or visit a medical office, when they hear raised voices, or when they approach the time of year when the event occurred (this is especially true if it happened near a holiday where there are a lot of sensory experiences – smells, sights, sounds).
Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on Pexels.com

  

I know that it is easy to look at our young children and see the behavioral challenges, hoping for a solution in a book or on a blog.  Sometimes our young children have experienced something that impacted the way their bodies respond to us and to the environment.  They are not fully in control of how they are responding, and we cannot hope that enough discipline, sticker charts, or talking to’s will change that.  

  I also know, that being a parent to a young child who experienced something scary or painful, means that you probably also experienced the event.  You feel the pain, the fear, the trauma too.  There are things that are hard to remember and painful to feel, even today.  The thought that your child might feel these things too can be overwhelming.  It’s easy to get stuck here.  But there is treatment available.  Mental health therapy for young children who have experienced scary things can be helpful when we work with the parent and child together to help resolve the way they are responding and the way that they are feeling.  Consider contacting a mental health specialist who is trained in early childhood mental health and trauma for the support and treatment needed. 

Written by April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E®

UpliftME Attachment-Based Therapy

What Parents Should Know About Their Young Child’s Emotional Health

You are a parent and this little human is looking at you, watching you, learning from you, and needing you.  There hasn’t been any time in your life when you’ve known this profound feeling and it is an experience that is difficult to explain (full of awe, terror, love, frustration and overwhelm to name a few of the mishmash feelings you experience day after day).  No matter how old your child is, the feelings are there, reminding you of just how important you are.

But I don’t have to tell you this, because you experience it.  You feel it in the space between yourself and your child – that vast space where actions and words are heard, seen, interpreted, and where each individual takes what they can from the relationship or puts limits on the relationship.  This can be difficult.  The demands of life and our other relationships can make prioritizing this interaction challenging.  There isn’t enough time.  It’s hard to know when to respond with limits and tough love versus a hug, especially when everyone around us seems to have an opinion about it.

Children can also make this difficult as they navigate the world and learn how to get their needs met.  Just like any of us, they see what works and they keep doing it.  If a baby cries and their parent responds by picking them up, changing them and feeding them, they will continue to cry when they need these things.  Older children understand that some behaviors get them the responses they want from their parents – throwing a tantrum gives me the individualized attention I was looking for or results in parents giving in and letting me have what I want.  These are basic ideas of learned behavior.  But what if it is more complicated than this?  What if the relationship actually impacts behaviors?

Our ability to be present with others depends a lot on the emotional reserves we have available.  If it was a hard day and we’re exhausted, this will show in how our children respond to us, because it shows in how we respond to them.  Think about this one, because it is important.  It’s easy to blame one person for their behaviors/responses without taking the time to think about our own piece in the interaction.  What did I bring home with me and how is it seeping out onto those I love?  This takes practice, mindful intention, and a willingness to be self-reflective. 

Each of us also brings a history to every relationship.  In this case, our history with our own caregivers can impact the relationships we have with our children.  If we grew up feeling like our parents knew how to meet our needs by providing love, safety, play, and emotional availability, it will be easier to know what this looks like and how to provide it.  If we grew up with parents who could not consistently offer the emotional support we needed, or who struggled with safety, or understanding what is typical of children, we too could struggle.  This relationship we had with our parents could take hold for generations if there isn’t a conscious awareness and willingness to try something different.

As parents we often co-regulate our young child’s emotions.  That is, we provide the stage for how they might react or feel in any given situation.  If we are feeling scared, anxious, angry, or frustrated and struggle to manage these feelings, it is likely that our children will also respond to us with fear, anxiety, anger, or frustration.  However, if we’re able to regulate our bodies enough to provide some calm, children will respond to the calm and regulated feeling they observe.  This doesn’t mean that parents have to be perfectly regulated at all times, but if continued behavioral challenges occur it is worth looking at what we are putting out into the world and if our child is responding similarly.  

Being present, mindful, reflective, and emotionally regulated is helpful to our children and their behaviors.  It can also be very hard to do when we feel triggered, overwhelmed, and even desperate in our interactions.  As we all consider building our mindfulness skills and ability to reflect as a method of managing stress, it is also important for engaging in relationships and parenting.  Sometimes this takes additional support from a therapist who understands the parent-child relationship and can support changing the things that are getting in the way.  

It might take looking at behaviors and how they are supporting the child to get their needs met; coming up with strategies and ideas to allow the child to try this in a healthier way.  It might also require spending time with the parent and how they experienced childhood and the relationship with their parent – supporting parents to find a way that feels better and doesn’t leave a lasting negative impact.  Lastly, it could involve parent-child therapy sessions to identify how you communicate with each other and how this is helping or hurting.  If you feel like you need this additional support with your young child, please reach out to an experienced therapist who can guide the relationship in a new direction and decrease behavioral challenges.  Learning these skills early can provide a foundation for years of positive interactions and guide you in raising a happy, healthy child.

Written by April Galligan, LCSW, IME-IV© 

UpliftMEchildtherapy.com