What Can a Parent or Caregiver Do to Help a Child in Distress?

The following excerpt from a book by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. provides parents and caregivers with specific, clinically-tested ways of helping children recover from traumatic experiences. Remember that “traumatic” refers to the impact on the child, not the drama or importance observers attribute to what happened.


Traumatic experiences are an unavoidable fact of life. At some point, it’s almost inevitable that a family member or friend will suffer and accident or other overwhelming experience. However, there are many ways to help that person to prevent long-term trauma from developing.

This section [of the book] provides hints and tips for working with someone who has had a traumatic experience, with specific guidance on how to work with children… Always use your own best judgment to assess the particular circumstances with which you are dealing. What are given here are simply guidelines to help loved ones.


When your child has experienced a traumatic event, remembering these steps will support him or her in resolving the trauma:

Focus on your own reactions. If there is no imminent danger, take a moment to observe your own internal physiological and emotional responses. Wait until you settle and have a sense of relative calm.

Pay attention to your child’s bodily responses and words. Validate your child’s bodily responses by not interrupting trembling, shaking or tears that are a normal part of coming out of shock.

Support those reactions. You can do this by demonstrating your acceptance through words and/or touch. For example, put one hand on your child’s shoulder, arm or middle of the back. Use a reassuring voice to say a few words, such as, “That’s okay,” “It’s all right to cry” (feel angry, and so on, or “Just let the shaking happen.”

Be there for the child. After the trembling, shaking or tears stop, validate your child’s emotional responses. Let him or her know that whatever they are feeling is okay and you will stay and listen. Resist the temptation to talk them out of fear, sadness, anger, embarrassment, guilt or shame in order to avoid your own uncomfortable feelings. Trust that your child will move through these feelings, supported by your acceptance of his or her authentic self.

Revisit the experience later. When helping your child move through symptoms developed from an earlier experience, you can use drawings, stories and play to elicit movement of residual trauma energy that may be stuck. Often the adult needs to tell the story of what he or she believes happened, then invite the child to add their version. Sometimes it is best to use a different name for the child in the story. This may help initially to give needed distance from the event. You may also want to reintroduce your child to ordinary objects or experiences that remain “charged” because they in some way remind the child of the incident that overwhelmed them.

After an automobile accident, for example, the infant’s or toddler’s car seat could be brought into the living room. Holding the infant in your arms, or gently walking with the toddler, you can gradually move toward it together and eventually place the child in the seat.

Go slowly. The key here is to take baby steps, watching and waiting for responses such as stiffening, turning away, holding the breath or heart rate changes. With each gentle ap- proach to the avoided or fear-provoking encounter, the procedure outlined above can be used as a guide. The idea is to make sure that your pacing is in tune with your child’s needs so that not too much energy or emotion is released at once. You can tell if this is occurring if the child seems to be getting more wound up. Calm your child by offering gentle reassurance, touching, holding or rocking.

Use play for healing. Puppets, dolls or miniature toy figures can also be useful in assessing if any trauma indications exist and can help your child move through them. For example, when a child’s physical body has recovered after surgery, a miniature bed and play figures that include a child, mom, dad, doctor and nurse can be given to the child to play with. Watch your child’s reactions closely. With the suggestions you’ve learned in this chapter, gently guide your child to sense his or her body’s reactions and release any uncomfortable feelings.

NEXT:  More from Levine’s book, Healing TraumaHow Can I Tell If My Child Has Been Traumatized?

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