National Child Abuse Prevention Month: How to Help an Abused Child Heal

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Last year we focused on what child abuse is and what to do about it. This year in our blog, we will focus on the factors that help children overcome abuse.

Abuse and Neglect is Traumatic

Child abuse and neglect is a traumatic experience. It is defined by the Child Welfare Information Gateway as, “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation.” Unfortunately, abuse and neglect usually takes place at the hands of a person a child is supposed to trust. This can be a parent, caretaker, guardian, family member, or friend. While each State is responsible for defining child abuse and neglect, most include emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse, and trafficking. When a child suffers these terrible experiences, they can have long-term impacts.

These experiences can cause toxic stress that can impair healthy mental and physical development. Long-term abuse can even cause PTSD in children. So, when a child has experienced this type of trauma what can be done for the child? What can help the child heal?

How Can You Help a Child Heal?

The universal prescription for trauma is resilience. Things that build resilience include good nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, healthy social relationships, and plenty of sleep. Children also need the presence of a caring adult. You can be that adult. You can help a child feel safe. In addition to patience and compassion, consider these other suggestions to help you support children who have experienced trauma:

  • Safety: remain calm and adhere to routine. Having a routine for play, sleep, and meals helps a child feel supported. It also creates stability. Be sure to let a child know of any changes to routine well in advance.
  • Encouragement: Listen to the child’s story and let them talk about their feelings. It is important to show that you take what they are saying seriously. Reassure the child that what has happened is not their fault. Let the child share their story when they are ready, don’t force them. When they talk about the traumatic event, correct any misinformation.
  • Attention and comfort: Simply spending time with the child helps them heal. If they are younger they may welcome cuddling and hugging. Nurturing, physical contact can play a big role in building trust and establishing safety, as long as adults follow the child’s lead. Be patient if a child is needy.
  • Relaxation: teach your child to practice relaxation techniques. This could include deep breathing or listening to peaceful music. Children may also feel more relaxed while making positive statements.
  • Be aware of your own history with trauma: If you have a history of trauma and you need support, seek it out. Just as the flight attendant on an airplane instructs you to place the oxygen mask over your own face before assisting others, so too should you get the help you need before helping others.
  • Healing: The time it takes to heal differs for everyone. Respect the child’s course of recovery and be patient as they navigate their pathway to feeling safe again.
  • Help: Get help from a mental health care professional if your child’s problems last longer than a few weeks or get worse. ChildSavers and other mental health care providers are here to help.

Resilient Families Make Resilient Communities

If you are a parent or caretaker of a child who has experienced neglect, abuse, or other trauma, you are not alone. There are supports in place to help you and your child. Reaching out for help when you need it can ease the path to healing. It can be challenging to care for a child who has experienced trauma. Often, children who need the most love ask for it in the most unloving ways. You may witness your child having difficulty calming down, being aggressive or withdrawn, or falling ill with stomach and headaches. Be sure not to react to the behavior but respond to the need. And finally, be sure to practice self-care and self-compassion. Your resilience is as essential as your child’s is. When we have resilient families, we have resilient communities.

For more information about resources and tips, click here.

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