being a secure base when a traumatised child having a meltdown…

Caring for children is such a privilege and as we approach Mother’s Day, I am reminded yet again what a miracle it is being a mother. There is nothing more wonderful that giving a child a hug, a special present or spending quality time with them making cakes, picking up leaves, staring at bugs or reading them a story. It’s the small things that we can rush past that we need to remember to treasure!

When we plan on spending time with our young ones it can be such a positive experience for both the adult and the child when things go well and fun and everything ends in fits of laughter and happy faces! However, sometimes, no matter how much we plan, a child can have an emotional outburst that can change the special moment into a nightmare!

Sometimes a child can become upset, have a tantrum or look like they have ‘lost the plot’. It can take the smallest thing for them to become emotionally overwhelmed and the atmosphere can change to tense and escalate to a huge ‘scene’. Usually it happens because the child wanted his or her own way. This is normal developmental behaviour in pre school children but if the children have experienced trauma in the past, they may be re-experiencing strong negative feelings of powerlessness or fear and be unsure how to express themselves and often use regressive behaviour. There are so many reasons why a child may escalate emotionally and it’s useful to learn as caretakers, how to help a child calm down and be able to stop an emotional outburst becoming a huge painful situation. So here are some ideas for soothing and calming a child when they are emotionally dysregulated. They need to be held as ideas for children according to the emotional age of the child at that time…and for those of us working with traumatised children, these are the foundational soothing activities for times of stress and difficulty.

Some simple ideas that we recommend to the families that we work with that help children that are feelings stressed, upset or emotionally dysregulated are often using the five senses. We suggest these and have seen some real safety come to the homes of families recovering from trauma:

ImageMusic or seashell listening, swinging outside, having a cosy/ safe corner with blankets, cuddly toys ready, books, puppets to express and be a voice for the reason they became dysregulated, slime putty or playdough to play with (age relevant), journaling or scrap books for collage, favourite smells to smell (in the cosy/safe corner), visualisation exercises with pictures that they have drawn nearby and readily accessible,and of course let’s encourage  the simple art of talking together.

Some more ideas are: slow breathing exercises they can do anywhere, ‘spaghetti arms’ (shaking their arms in a loose fashion) and star jumps, calming music- listening to a CD which helps the child visualise a safe place, listening to ‘happy’ music, playing a musical instrument, drawing, painting, playing with a pet, cuddling a special soft toy, going for a walk, kicking a ball when angry, jumping on a trampoline, dancing and finally and when it really is necessary, visualising the process of putting disturbing, intrusive thoughts/images into a box, closing the lid and locking it.

It is also worth remembering that traumatised children need to learn that adults can be dependable, caring, patient and loving to counteract the negative messages they have often received in the past.  Those who become therapeutic parents or carers for a traumatized child become the children’s secure base by being emotionally available, sensitive, responsive and helpful.  To do so means we have to be able to manage our own feelings and stress so they we have something to give and so that we can try and make sure that we are not going to overflow any of our stress/negative emotions to the children. Therefore as parents and caretakers in this role, we need to get the support we need to be the best carer that we can be…-there’s no shame in needing support and time for ourselves.

So it’s good to try and remind us all that when it looks like things are going wrong, it’s best to not take it personally, be consistent and supportive, listen to the children, say sorry if necessary, accept and validate their feelings by reflecting them, be trigger aware and body language aware, avoid labels and telling them what they are feeling, and treasure the moments where things go well and we can see the little ones enjoying life and experiencing new things!

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