Therapies to treat trauma in children
Therapy provides a secure environment that allows your child to address their thoughts and emotions. It gives your child a chance to develop coping skills and eventually regain control over their life and reestablish the feeling of safety. These are just some of the key therapies to treat trauma in children.
While the type of therapy will depend on your child’s age and needs, below are some of the beneficial treatments for trauma in children.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
TF-CBT was developed in the 1990s by Anthony Mannarino, Judith Cohen, and Esther Deblinger to meet the needs of children and adolescents with severe trauma symptoms. It expands on traditional cognitive behavioural methods and incorporates family involvement.
How it treats trauma in children
After going through something traumatic, your child might struggle with negative thinking patterns that might lead to unhealthy behaviours (acting out, emotional outbursts, or self-isolation). Your child might blame themselves and believe the traumatic event was their fault.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) is a short-term treatment that aims to challenge and change these cognitive distortions to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. It allows a child to develop coping strategies by giving them the tools to process and identify thoughts and feelings related to trauma.
Why choose TF-CBT?
Supporting a child that has experienced trauma is challenging and requires you to adapt to a new reality that might be overwhelming without professional help. TF-CBT recognises the importance of the caregiver’s role in a child’s recovery by engaging parents in sessions with and without the child present.
Parents are educated on trauma’s impact and taught healthy parenting techniques and skills they can practise with a child at home to facilitate emotional healing. In joint sessions, a child has a chance to share a narrative with the caregiver that allows the caregiver to offer better emotional support.
While the main goal is to target unhealthy thoughts and behaviours and manage adverse emotions, TF-CBT strives to lessen the sense of shame attached to trauma, strengthen communication between a child and a parent, and help improve all areas of functioning.
The therapy is a phase-based treatment that relies on the following key components:
- P – psychoeducation and parenting
The therapist explains symptoms that are caused by trauma and comes up with behaviour management strategies.
- R – relaxation methods
The aim is to introduce relaxation methods that effectively decrease stress, for example, breathing techniques.
- A – affective expression and regulation skills
The therapist helps the child identify and express difficult emotions such as anger, guilt, and sorrow, and learn the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
- C – cognitive coping skills and processing
The goal is to identify inaccurate thoughts about the trauma and realise that thoughts can be changed.
- T – trauma narrative and processing
The therapist introduces exposure exercises to help a child express and process the trauma, for example, incorporating songs or book chapters.
- I – in vivo exposure
The goal is to reduce avoidance that affects daily functioning.
- C – conjoint therapy sessions
At this stage, sessions involve the caregiver, which gives a child an opportunity to open up in front of a trusted family member.
- E – enhancing personal safety and future growth
The goal is to develop personal safety skills that aid personal growth and help avoid trauma in the future.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy)
EMDR was developed in 1987 by Francine Shapiro, who discovered that moving eyes from side to side while walking in the park made negative thoughts and memories less upsetting
How it treats trauma
The therapist unblocks and facilitates the healing process by asking a child to concentrate on a painful memory and directing their eye movement.
The technique creates dual awareness: both eye movement and recalling the event requires working memory capacity, which is important for learning and carrying out everyday tasks. Since working memory’s capacity is limited, moving eyes from side to side prevents it from fully focusing on the traumatic memory. Repeating this over time should make the memory less upsetting.
Why choose EMDR?
While talking therapies target thoughts and emotions related to traumatic memory to help a child process it, EMDR directly alters the way memory is stored in the brain.
EDMR is based on the assumption that the mind can heal itself if stimulated properly. It believes that mental health can be improved once the block preventing it from healing is eliminated. For example, a child might not remember most parts of the traumatic memory, which might manifest themselves as flashbacks or nightmares that stand in the way of their recovery.
Additionally, after the traumatic event, the child’s mind is contaminated with negative thoughts and beliefs that constantly inhibit the healing process, just like repetitive injury irritates a physical wound. EMDR gets rid of the block by lessening the intensity of pain attached to traumatic memory.
The term art therapy was coined in 1942 by Adrian Hill, who linked painting and drawing to health benefits. Another significant contributor to the field was Margaret Naumburg. She viewed art as a way to access and externalise unconscious imagery and believed children who were allowed to express themselves through art would experience healthier development.
How it treats trauma
Artistic expression is a way to form connections with one’s feelings and thoughts. Trauma might make your child feel lost and disconnected from their emotions, which in turn inhibits their healing and development.
Art therapy treats psychological disorders and improves mental wellbeing by engaging both body and mind and allowing for emotional expression through the creative process. In other words, it combines aspects of visual art (such as drawing, painting, sculpting) with psychological techniques (exploring thoughts and emotions).
Why choose art therapy?
When children experience dissociation as a result of trauma, their memories become fragmented and might be difficult to access. Art therapy helps these memories resurface while letting a child distance themselves from the negative affect associated with trauma. By exploring and externalising traumatic experiences, art therapy encourages the body to reconnect with the mind.
Art therapy is a great option for children who aren’t ready to open up and whose vocabulary isn’t developed enough to verbalise their experience. With creativity as a medium for communication, a child can process their emotions without relying on verbal skills.
Making art promotes relaxation, while both the process and the end product become a representation of traumatic memories. At the end of each creative process, the therapist identifies themes and discusses the artwork with the child to achieve cognitive reflection.
While art therapy might work best combined with talking therapy, its strength is essentially viewing the trauma as a whole experience. Sometimes words can be insufficient to tell a story, and art therapy gives a survivor a voice by allowing freedom of expression.
Therapy is essential in helping your child minimise the impact of trauma. Untreated symptoms might become a chronic condition that continues into adulthood. An adult with underlying issues might engage in risky behaviours, struggle with addiction and depression, and find it difficult to maintain a relationship with other people.
Don’t let your child suffer the consequences of unresolved trauma. Contact My Family Psychologist to book an appointment, consider your options and learn more about our therapies to treat trauma in children .