Traumatic stress leaves you feeling terrible. When you’re experiencing traumatic stress, your body tenses and gives in to physiological changes that can lead to digestive issues and headaches. When children experience this kind of overwhelming emotion, it limits their ability to engage positively in learning. Curiosity is a result of a composed and calm nervous system, not one that’s on high alert. 

Have you ever been terrified? Do you remember how your body felt in that moment? You probably didn’t feel like learning or socializing. Children and adults both have times where they feel terrified, like they want to run and hide. Being scared has a way of making you feel insecure. Depression, chronic anxiety, substance abuse, isolation, and aggression, are all symptoms of traumatic stress.

How can you help a child experiencing traumatic stress? Work with them in order to calm them down. These 6 tips can help you do so:

1. Spend time with them. Connection is comforting.

When a child is undergoing traumatic stress, they are afraid of how they’re feeling. In order for a child to learn and thrive, they must feel safe and secure. That’s why connecting with them and making them comfortable is crucial. Being alone heightens fear.

2. Be gentle and careful to not startle them.

When a child is suffering from traumatic stress it places them in a fragile state. We live in a very left-brain dominant culture where we don’t talk nearly enough about emotional safety conveyed through right brain communications. Right-brained communications are the non-verbal cues we subconsciously pick up from each other. These communications include tone of voice, eye contact, and body language. When you are aware that a child is traumatically stressed, it is important to speak in soft and gentle tones and use slow movements to avoid startling the child.

3. Playing is a great safe way to create a positive connection.

Playing is a fun and healthy release for all ages alike. Playing helps when a child needs to reset and focus on calming down. The Polyvagal theory states that play stimulates the social engagement system of the vagus nerve, which is the body’s largest nerve, and when it becomes stimulated it relaxes the nervous system. Playing gives the child’s nervous system a change to calm down.

4. Help the child work out their thoughts and voice the way they feel. 

Discussing a child’s feelings with them can be difficult. They might not know how to describe exactly how they feel. Try your best to make it as easy as possible for them. You can show them drawings of little faces displaying different feelings and emotions and have them point to the one they best relate to. Other ways to help are games, drawing, and playing with puppets. 

In order for you to tell if expressing their feelings through one of these measures is working, look for cues from the child. Do they seem to be expressing a sense of relief, happiness, or calmness? If they desire to continue playing, odds are, it’s helping. If it’s not, you’ll see the child demonstrate more tension, sadness, and/or anger.

5. After they work through expressing their feelings, give hugs and other physical affection. 

When a child’s nervous system is stressed, you can help calm it by holding them, rocking them, hugging them, and swaddling them. It’s important to monitor the child’s cues, if it’s obviously not helping or they don’t enjoy it, then don’t do it. If they stiffen up, stop. If they seem to relax it typically means that it’s helping.

6. Be reassuring and help the child understand what is happening.

With reassurance, a little goes a long way. Be straightforward. Saying things like “you’ll be ok,” and “this won’t last forever,” can be very helpful. It’s important to be truthful. Explain what has happened and what is happening to resolve it. 

Children thrive in calm environments. In order to help them get back to normalcy, we must work to restore their sense of safety and security as quickly as possible. There are many educational resources available to adults, like the Change Triangle tool for emotional health, and programs like RULER, an evidence-based approach for integrating social and emotional learning into schools, that help children. There is always more we can do in our families and communities to lessen stress and foster emotional wellbeing.