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How to Avoid Retraumatizing Children When Dealing With Sensitive Issues

By the age of 16, more than two-thirds of children report having experienced a traumatic event. You can’t prevent these experiences from occurring for the children that you work with. But there are things you can do to support them in meaningful ways.

Learning how to avoid retraumatization is critical. It benefits the child and the other children and providers interacting with them. Being observant of particular behaviors may help you identify when you’re working with a child who is dealing with the effects of traumatic experiences. However,  there will also be children who don’t show obvious signs of trauma. Using trauma-informed practices will help you avoid triggering these children. Retraumatizing a child may cause them emotional turmoil. In this state, it can be difficult for them to self-regulate.

Retraumatization symptoms can manifest in children who are reminded of past traumas. Something as simple as a smell or a tone of voice can take them back to a difficult time in their lives. Sensitive subject matter can also be challenging to navigate without upsetting traumatized children.

Learning to recognize these symptoms will help you support a child who is struggling. When you know the signs, you can make adjustments to best meet the child’s needs.

The Importance of Not Retraumatizing Children

Children who have experienced trauma benefit from being in safe, supportive environments. They enjoy a sense of stability when they’re engaged in healthy relationships with others where they know they are accepted and valued. 

Adults who provide trauma-sensitive support to children they work with create a sense of safety that may be lacking in other parts of their life. Environments free of fear help prevent retraumatizing these vulnerable children.

Retraumatization makes it difficult to stay present and engaged in a healthy way. To learn, heal, and relate to others, children need to stay in the present moment. If they perceive a threat, real or imagined, they may get stuck in a past event.

Identifying Retraumatization Symptoms

Retraumatization may cause flashbacks in which children relive an experience in vivid detail. In other cases, they may not even be consciously aware that they’ve been triggered. The body can generate physiological symptoms that cause a subconscious trauma response.

As a trauma-informed care provider, it’s important to be able to recognize retraumatization symptoms when they present. Such symptoms could look like any of the following:

  • Inability to focus
  • Heightened and/or uncontrollable emotions
  • Social withdrawal
  • Avoidance
  • Conflict with peers
  • Change in appetite
  • Hypervigilance
  • Dissociation

A noticeable change in behavior or temperament in a child is a good sign to pay closer attention to them. Sensitive subject matter like gender identity, gun violence, and issues related to substance use disorders can be particularly triggering. Providers need to be aware of how children are reacting to these topics.

How to Avoid Retraumatization

As a society, we are becoming more conscious of the effects of childhood trauma on adult mental health and well-being. As a result, many providers are learning how to provide trauma-informed care. It takes time to learn and implement these practices into the culture of your organization.

Remember that as many as two out of every three children you are working with may have experienced some form of trauma. The specifics of their trauma will run across a large spectrum of events. Remain aware and attuned to the kids and their shifts in behavior or temperament, so you can respond quickly if one of them appears triggered.

You can create a sense of safety in the environment by communicating effectively, particularly when there’s a need to discuss sensitive subject matter. For example, think about when you have to practice active shooter drills. If there’s a child in your class or program who has experienced gun violence in their home or community, this can be extraordinarily triggering.

Prepare children for exercises that may be challenging by assuring them that they’re safe. You can let them know that the drill is just a precaution that you’re required to perform but there is no danger. And then observe closely. Children who get anxious may need more of your attention than less affected children.

Language is important. We are seeing this now more than ever. Some children have faced discrimination or abuse as a result of their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. You can make a powerful impact by using inclusive language and emphasizing that the children are all valued and supported. Let them know they’re in a judgment-free zone. Children thrive when they’re safe to express themselves authentically, without facing negative consequences.

It’s also helpful to always validate the experiences that children may be having. Sometimes kids will talk about their challenges when they develop trust that you’re a safe adult in their lives. If they do, you can acknowledge that you see how hard their circumstance or experience must be for them. Remind them that they’re safe in your care. And ask if there’s anything they need to feel comfortable within whatever setting you are working with them. Giving them a sense of control can help them feel empowered.

Tools and Resources to Learn and Implement Trauma-Informed Practices

Trauma is a reality for many children in our society. Unfortunately, you can’t shield them from traumatic experiences in their homes or communities. But you can offer them a safe environment in which you know how to avoid retraumatization.

Using trauma-informed practices in your organization will help you support children, recognize retraumatization symptoms, and respond accordingly. This enables them to learn, connect with others, and enjoy being children while they’re in your care.

We are committed to helping organizations learn and implement practices that prevent retraumatizing these vulnerable children. At The Center on Child Wellbeing & Trauma, we provide tools and resources to assist you in providing the most supportive care possible for the children you work with who need it most.