When I was 12 years old, I was assaulted—and I had no idea how to deal with the storm of emotions brewing inside of me.
No one in my family knew how to help or respond. They stayed quiet while I suffered in silence. My parents, both of whom had been abused as children, were never given any tools to help them heal.
With a family history of addiction, it was no surprise that I turned to drugs and alcohol to quell my pain. When children are traumatized and hurting, they tend to act out. They often lack the verbiage to explain what is happening inside. Drugs helped me numb out and forget the pain. But in reality, all they did was prolong the pain—and add to it.
I am often asked and wonder, would it have been different for me if a trauma-informed person had been in my life at that time? Could they have kept me from the 10 years of horror I experienced? I think so. Had someone spoke to me in a way that eliminated shame and did not make me feel guilty and scared, I may have sought help sooner.
A “trauma-informed” approach is one that aims to understand behavior—not label it, blame someone, or accidentally shame them. Telling people that it’s OK to not feel OK, sharing with them that they are not alone, and telling them that you believe them are all powerful ways to offer a young person a safe space to navigate confusion around trauma.
Thankfully, today, we live in a society that has cracked open important conversations around abuse and assault. Victims of sexual violence need not suffer in silence as I once did. That doesn’t mean that conversations about these topics are easy. They are hard—especially when you become a parent, but I’ve already started these discussions with my 5-year-old son.
Our children cannot do better until they are taught better—and neither can we as parents.
Here are tips to have age-appropriate conversations with children about their bodies, consent, emotional regulation, and coping.
Engage at the Right Times
After being raped, I remember it felt like my brain was able to lock those memories away. They only came out in fits and spurs, in flashbacks and nightmares. I could not access feelings and place them next to the events that happened to me. Children are resilient and their brains have an incredible way of protecting them, this can make intervention a challenge.
When asking more probative questions, engage children when they’re playing or during physical activity. A child’s brain development is different and direct questioning does not always work, especially if you’re trying to get them to open up about something fear-inducing or traumatizing.
If a child’s brain is already engaged with coloring or shooting hoops, it can be easier for them to talk about topics that are emotionally overwhelming. Ask questions, let them know you love them, that you are willing to listen, and will never judge or shame them for anything they share.
Normalize Talking about Hard Things
Pepper in prevention education throughout your conversations so your child knows the right terminology for their body, and they understand who is allowed to touch them and who is not. Do this while changing diapers, during potty training, and at the doctor’s office as they grow up. Just make quick, matter-of-fact statements since they might not tolerate or entertain a long conversation.
In our home, we teach our son a song and dance where we sign, “stop” and say, “Don’t touch me there.” We put a handout in a stop sign. “This is my no-no square,” we say, and “draw” a square around their lower body. Then we discuss how his body is his and no one is allowed to touch him without his permission. We tell him that only a doctor or parent should touch his genitals and even then, that is only for a quick cleaning or examination and there should always be another trusting adult in the room.
One of the hardest jobs as a parent is knowing that often, we are not the ones our children will turn to when they need to talk or want to ask questions. In normalizing the conversations around engaging tough topics be sure to give them plenty of resources and acknowledge that you know it may feel odd for them to speak to you about whatever they need help with. Tell them that this is OK and give them some alternate names, places, and entities who they can speak to, including trusted friends, family, or hotlines.
Teach Healthy Coping Strategies
If we can build resiliency in our children and teach them to feel feelings while normalizing trauma in a way that gives them space to talk, feel, heal, and deal, they are less likely to reach for negative coping mechanisms. Negative coping comes from a lack of effective coping strategies.
We encourage our son to use his words and give him permission to be mad or sad by being there for him when he cries. We also teach him to use tools such as mediation, deep breathing, and walking away when he is overwhelmed. We normalize common emotions by making him feel supported instead of isolated and we teach him how to process emotions in a way that makes him feel better.
By giving children healthy coping tools, you are building a foundation for them when they have hard feelings. You are giving them ways to process emotions without them wanting to escape.
Offer Support through the Ups and Downs
These strategies, while well-intended, may not always work. Children and young people may still turn to drugs, alcohol, or other negative coping mechanisms. If they do, let them know that you are there for them, that you support them, and stress the resources that are available to them.
This way, your child will grow up with options—and options are huge when dealing with trauma and addiction.