How to React When Something (Bad) Happens to Your Child. Image of sad boy.

1st Responder: How to react when the traumatized child is your own.

“In this life you will have trouble.”

Man, do I believe this statement. Not simply because Jesus said the words, but because I’ve personally experienced trouble. And now that I’ve lived a half a century, time and again I’ve seen bad things happen to good people, people I love.

But what if it’s your own kid having trouble? Assault, bullying, theft, car wreck. What’s the best way to help a traumatized child of any age?

Some families handle trouble beautifully. Others, not so much.

King David of Bible fame epic-failed when his lovely daughter Tamar was raped. By her half-brother, Amnon.

Tamar’s other brother Absalom jacked-up the fiasco further by telling her, “Is it true that Amnon has been with you? Well, my sister, keep quiet for now, since he’s your brother. Don’t you worry about it.” As if.

Later in the story we learn, “When King David heard what had happened, he was very angry.” But did he take action? He did not.

In time, Absalom’s men murdered Amnon. David and all his servants “wept bitterly” over the slain son. Many days they mourned. Leaving Tamar to believe the murder of a son is far more distressing than the rape of a daughter.

Be advised: How you respond, or fail to respond, to your child’s crisis will speak volumes to them.

To this day, no significant consequence has been dealt the family member who abused me. That fact will forever grieve me.

On the other end of the response spectrum, Dinah’s family went way too far.

The Bible includes another rape reference—the rape of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah. Bizarrely, Shechem, Dinah’s rapist, fell madly in love with her and wanted to marry her. Her father and brothers, shocked and furious by Dinah’s rape, said, “Sure, fine. Marry the girl,” even as they devised a heinous retaliatory scheme.

Shechem would be allowed to marry Dinah if he and “all his men” were circumcised. “Three days later, when the men were still sore from their circumcision,” two of Dinah’s brothers took their swords and slaughtered Shechem, his father, and all their men. They also plundered everything of value from that community, including livestock, women, and children.

Who knows what Dinah thought of all this. No one bothered to ask her.

So what is the proper response–not too little, not too much–to a traumatized child’s pain? I have a few thoughts.

Listen

When a child comes to you with any source of devastation, listen quietly as they tell their story, maybe more than once. Do not interrupt. Initially, your full, engaged attention is what they need most.

That is if they choose to confide in you. Hopefully your kids feel they can tell you anything. For tips in that area, click here.

Believe

Believe your child and the story they tell you. Thank them for telling you, for having the courage to tell you. They need to know they were right to not stay silent.

Also, make sure they know you believe their story. Look them in the eye and say, “I believe you!”

Often the main reason distressed people keep quiet is because they fear they won’t be believed. More on that here.

Do not blame your child.

Now is not the time to say, “If you didn’t have your car stereo blaring, you may not have hit x, y, z.” Or, “You got attacked because you were running alone at night with earbuds in.”

No one wants to be told, “It’s your fault.” No one. Similar to fear of not being believed, fear of blame is yet another reason traumatized people don’t seek help.

Love.

After they’ve told you everything—the details of what happened, how they feel about what happened—tell your child you love them. No matter what. The greatest gift a parent can give a child is unconditional love. 

Tears or no tears, hold them close. Your mind is probably racing, wanting to immediately fix everything, but now is not the time to launch into a planning session with a 21 item to-do list.

Also, tell your child how sorry you are this happened. That was one of the first things my therapist told me and man, was it a balm to my wounded soul.

Fight for them.

When Sandwich-Child was a 4thgrader and Junior-Man a kindergartner, a big boy on the school bus was bullying him. Saying mean things and not letting him sit down.

So Sandwich-Child popped the bully in the nose. Immediately she burst into tears, certain the bus driver would ban her from the school bus forever.

“No, sweetie. You won’t be banned. You were being a good big sister. No worries.”

The next day, I drove to the bully’s house to speak with his mom. Thankfully, her response was awesome. “We don’t tolerate bullying in this family. I’ll take care of it.” And she did.

Everyone wants to know they’re worth fighting for, “worth” being the key word. If the incident is never mentioned again, or worse, is buried on purpose, what does that tell a child? Your problems aren’t important. You aren’t important.

Fighting for your child may mean contacting authorities, perhaps pressing charges. Not only does legal action communicate to your child, “I care for you,” it may also protect others.

Wonderful Counselor

If your child experiences trauma—a terrible car crash, breaking and entering of his/her home, any kind of assault—make them an appointment with a trained counselor. As a result of their situation, they may have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD can be triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrible event.

Going forward, your child can decide if they want additional counseling sessions, but at least one meeting with a therapist is a good idea. Especially if there are details your child doesn’t feel comfortable sharing with you.

Safety First

After an attack—physical, sexual, maybe even verbal—an individual may no longer feel safe. As the PTSD article mentions, sometimes victims can develop anxiety, depression, or hyper-vigilant behavior.

Work with your child to brainstorm solutions. Maybe they could move back home for a while. Perhaps carrying pepper spray would be a comfort. Or installing a security system.

Recently missionary friends of mine living abroad were grievously betrayed by a person very close to them. In order to put a great distance between them and the individual who harmed them, they chose to move their family back to the United States. In addition, because the parents prosecuted this individual, he is now behind bars, possibly for life, due to the number and varying degrees of his assaults.

I have so much respect for this mother and father’s response to a very difficult circumstance. For more information about their story, click here. Please consider praying for this family and perhaps making a donation to ease their re-entry to America.

Ask, “How can I help?”

After all the above actions are accomplished, ask your child if there’s anything else they need. By all means, accomodate any reasonable requests they have during the healing process.

In addition, don’t stop supporting your child after everything calms down. On a regular basis, ask them:

  • “How can I help?”
  • “What do you need?”
  • “How are you doing?”
  • “How can I pray for you?”

Keep up the gentle, loving questions until further notice. Until your child shows signs they have transitioned from victim to survivor. I pray for their sake that the process is swift.

~~~~~~~

If you have any helpful ideas, please leave them below in the comments.

Newsflash: My new children’s book, The Brave Knight, is now available. This book empowers kids to protect themselves in multiple ways. Purchase details in this post.

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