The following strategies are designed for you the parent to use with your child as s/he begins to tackle post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These strategies are best used for children with mild-moderate signs of this type of anxiety. For children with more severe symptoms or who have been diagnosed with PTSD, we recommend treatment with a mental health professional, although M.A.P. strategies can be used at home to support your child’s therapy work.
Step 1. Helping your child become an expert on anxiety
This is a very important first step, as it helps children and teens understand what is happening to them when they experience anxiety. Teaching your child that the worries and physical feelings h/she is experiencing have a name –anxiety- and that millions of other people also have anxiety, can be a great relief. Help your child become an expert on anxiety by providing him or her with facts and important information.
To learn how to explain this to your child, see Anxiety 101: What You and Your Child Need to Know About Anxietyand Talking to Your Child about Anxiety and the ABCs of Anxiety: Understanding How Anxiety Works and Fight-Flight-Freeze.
Step 2: Teaching your child or teen about PTSD
- Reading or explaining some of the information outlined on the PTSD main page can help your child to feel more in control of what is happening. Knowledge is power.
- Not all children and teens that experience a trauma will develop PTSD. If your child feels supported by the family afterward, he or she is less likely to have PTSD symptoms later on, even after a major trauma. So, as a first step, you can help your child by providing lots of love, understanding and support.
- As a parent, having your child experience a trauma can also be very difficult for you. For example, you might blame yourself and believe that you did not protect your child enough. Your first instinct might even be to leave your child alone for a bit and give him or her time and space alone to deal with what happened. However, children can misinterpret this to mean that you somehow blame them for what happened. Instead, encourage your child to talk to you about what happened and any feelings h/she might have about the event. This can be an important part of your child’s recovery. For younger children who might have difficulty or be unable to talk about the trauma, encourage them to draw a picture or write story about what happened. Knowing you are there to listen will help them to feel supported even if they are not ready to talk about all the details right away. Hearing you say, “I love you and this was not your fault,” can make all the difference in their recovery.
- PTSD can include very scary symptoms (such as nightmares, flashbacks or vivid memories of the trauma), so your child may be worried that h/she is going “crazy”. Take the time to explain that all these scary feelings are part of PTSD. Your child also needs to know that h/she is normal and that this happens to other kids and teens that experience trauma. The problem is not that your child is crazy. Rather, your child has anxiety as a result of experiencing the trauma. There are skills that h/she can learn to deal with this anxiety.
Step 3: Creating your child’s M.A.P.
The best way to help your child deal with anxiety, fear and related symptoms of PTSD is to give him or her tools that can be used to cope more effectively with his/her experiences. These tools are intended to increase your child’s ability to tolerate anxiety, rather than to eliminate anxiety. Anxiety exists everywhere, and therefore it is an illusion to believe we can eliminate the source and experience of anxiety. It is far more effective to provide your child with the tools to tolerate and cope, rather than to control and escape. For PTSD, you might want to use any or all of the following anxiety tools to create your child or teen’s M.A.P. ( My Anxiety Plan). These tools are listed in a recommended order, although proceeding in this order will depend on the needs and interests of your child or teen.
- Talking to Your Child or Teen about Anxiety
- When Anxiety Becomes a Problem: What’s Normal and What’s Not
- Naming the Bully
- Coping with Back to School Anxiety
- Coping with Nightmares
- Returning to Routines and Pleasant Events
- Learning to Relax: Calm Breathing
- Learning to Relax: Muscle Relaxation
- Balanced Thinking
- Cognitive Coping Cards
- Exposure Therapy for PTSD
- Rewarding Bravery
- Tolerating Uncertainty
Final point: Although increased knowledge and the many tools available on this website can be very effective in helping you to manage your child’s anxiety, sometimes it is not enough. Sometimes children and teens have very severe anxiety, and despite all your best efforts, your child might still be struggling daily with anxiety symptoms. If this is the case, seek some professional help through a consult with your family doctor, psychiatrist, or a child psychologist/mental health worker.