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Therapy for Children's Grief
8 Strategies for Working with Grieving Children

Section 9
Parenting Guidelines in Treating Traumatized Children

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In the last section, we discussed adjusting to a new life.  Three aspects regarding adjusting to a new life that we discussed were role changes, going back to school, and holidays. 

In this section, we will discuss parental guidelines for trauma related to children experiencing grief from a loss. There are three guideline topics for treating traumatized children that we will discuss. The three topics are how a parent can help their traumatized children, what to say to their traumatized child, and what not to say. All of this information is especially helpful when shared with the parent or guardian of the traumatized child. Therefore, consider playing this section for the parent or guardian of the traumatized client you are treating.

Three Guidelines forTreating Traumatized Children

An earthquake caused the death of Jimmy’s parents. The family was at home when the earthquake struck, which collapsed the apartment building in which Jimmy and his mother and father lived. Jimmy, age 10, witnessed this traumatic death of his parents and was soon sent to live with his aunt in a neighboring city. Jimmy’s aunt Tabitha had no experience with children.  Suddenly becoming the parent of a 10 year old boy was proving to create stress which caused Tabitha to question her 5 year sobriety.

The following is basic information I provide caretakers and significant others of grieving traumatized children.  As I read these, evaluate if you are currently treating a client that might benefit from listening to this section during a session.

♦ Guideline #1 - Helping Traumatized Children
Tabitha learned the following 12 guidelines for helping traumatized children.  As I list these 12 guidelines, evaluate them for use with clients you may be treating. 

  1. Encourage but don’t force the child to talk. 
  2. Let the child draw about their feelings.  Art is one way children process their feelings of trauma and emotional pain.  This has been discussed on a previous section.
  3. Let the child play out their feelings.  Jimmy would sometimes play ‘earthquake’ with his toys.  This play-acting triggered a flood of emotions from Tabitha, so she would simply leave the room so that Jimmy could keep playing out his feelings.  In short, try not to discourage play that smothers the child’s feels; but triggers yours.
  4. Think about helping your child develop memorial rituals.  If it feels appropriate.
  5. Share your feelings of sadness and grief with the child.
  6. Don’t abandon the traumatized child.  If you are over isolating your self from the child, he or she may feel abandoned.  So do your best to stay as available as possible.
  7. Understand that your need for control may increase due to the trauma.  You my be feeling a natural over-protectiveness towards your child.  See if is possible to think about a balance in this area.  This may take time.
  8. Of course, don’t over look the obvious, communicate to the child that he or she is loved and needed.
  9. If it seems appropriate verbally state in specific words the idea that the child was not at fault regarding the trauma.
  10. Provide necessary information as the child asks questions.  He or she may not understand the words but they can understand the feeling tone behind them.
  11. Maintain the child’s role in the healing process for the rest of the family.  As mentioned in an earlier section, even if your child is the "little man or new woman of the family"  he or she is still a child, not an adult.
  12. Parents or guardians may naturally rely on children to help them cope.  But consider what issues might be reserved for friends, family, and/or therapy.

♦ Guideline #2 - What to Say to a Traumatized Child
As I read these 3 guidelines regarding what to say to a traumatized child, think of how you could apply these guidelines to a grieving client you are treating.

  1. Give an opportunity to share the actual event.  Tabitha stated to Jimmy, "Tell me what happened at the time of the earthquake, if you feel like talking."  Tabitha was willing to listen to details and Jimmy felt a need to tell the same story over and over for some time after his parent’s death.
  2. Offer practical help.  For example, Tabitha would ask Jimmy if she could help pick up his toys after he played his earthquake game.
  3. Comment on behaviors not typical for the child.  Tabitha would mention specific behaviors by asking, "Jimmy I noticed you kicking your foot into the carpet a lot.  You seem frustrated.  Would you like to tell me how you feel?"

Could these three guidelines on what to say to a traumatized child benefit your client?

♦ Guideline #3 - What Not to Say to a Traumatized Child
In addition to helping traumatized children and what to say to a traumatized child, the third guideline topic is what not to say to a traumatized child. 

  1. Don’t tell the child to put it out of his mind.  If someone had told Jimmy to put the death of his parents in the earthquake out of his mind, he of course would not have been able to do so.  Periodically, the trauma and grief may be all Jimmy thought about.  Tabitha found that the best approach to that situation was to try to get Jimmy out and away from his own thoughts.  For example, a walk in the park or a museum tour provided an alternative focus for Jimmy.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask about the trauma or grief.  Tabitha realized that because the trauma was always near the surface of Jimmy’s thoughts, asking him about it gave him an opportunity to talk.  She no longer had to worry that she was responsible for making him think about his pain.
  3. Don’t criticize the child’s reactions or minimize the trauma by saying, "It could have been worse."  To Jimmy, nothing felt worse than the pain from his grief.

Think of your Jimmy.  Could his or her parent or guardian benefit from an understanding of what not to say to their traumatized child? 

In this section, we have discussed guidelines for trauma. There are three guideline topics for treating traumatized children that we discussed. The three topics are how a parent can help their traumatized children, what to say to their traumatized child, and what not to say.

- Morgan, A., Juriga, S., & Brown, E. (Jul/Aug 2004). Letting the Story Unfold: A Case Study of Client-Centered Therapy for Childhood Traumatic Grief. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 12(4).

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Bellet, B. W., LeBlanc, N. J., Nizzi, M.-C., Carter, M. L., van der Does, F. H. S., Peters, J., Robinaugh, D. J., & McNally, R. J. (2020). Identity confusion in complicated grief: A closer look. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 129(4), 397–407.

Gilkey, S. (2010). Review of Treating traumatized children: Risk, resilience and recovery [Review of the book Treating traumatized children: Risk, resilience and recovery, by D. Brom, R. Pat-Horenczyk & J. D. Ford, Eds.]. Traumatology, 16(1), 66–67.

Kiser, L. J., Miller, A. B., Mooney, M. A., Vivrette, R., & Davis, S. R. (2020). Integrating parents with trauma histories into child trauma treatment: Establishing core components. Practice Innovations, 5(1), 65–80.

Murray, K. J., Sullivan, K. M., Lent, M. C., Chaplo, S. D., & Tunno, A. M. (2019). Promoting trauma-informed parenting of children in out-of-home care: An effectiveness study of the resource parent curriculum. Psychological Services, 16(1), 162–169.

What are three guideline topics for treating traumatized children? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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