In the years I’ve spent working with children who have experienced trauma and loss, there is one mistake I see parents making more than any other. Most parents are far too focused on shielding their children from experiencing difficulties instead of helping children create positive meaning out of the difficulties in their lives.
We know that some people can experience a serious traumatic event and be relatively unaffected by it, while others can develop severe emotional symptoms from little more than feeling misunderstood. Trauma researchers say the reason is that the incident itself is not nearly as important as the meaning we create to make sense of it. If someone lives through severe trauma and decides to believe that they had this experience in order to inspire them to help others, then they will not have serious symptoms. However, if that same person decides their experience means that the world is fundamentally unsafe or that the event was their fault, they will likely develop post-traumatic stress.
What this means for parents is that it is extremely important to help your children create positive meanings out of the difficulties they experience. Most parents don’t like to talk with their children about scary things that have happened to them. However, not doing so means that the child is left alone to create a meaning for what they have experienced, and the meanings children create on their own are usually self-blaming. I suggest parents be proactive in talking with their children and helping them create positive meanings for their difficulties and seek the help of a counselor if needed.
Tim Desmond is a therapist in private practice in Oakland, CA, and directs a mental health day treatment program for children. He offers phone counseling for adults and couples through his website www.phonecounseling.net. Follow him on twitter @timdesmond