How to Heal from Trauma: A Guide on Helping Kids & Teens
Understanding how to heal from trauma after a painful experience is essential for enabling kids and teens to be their natural, authentic selves. Watching them go through indefinite periods of stress and pain as a parent can be disheartening and feel impossible. However, traumatic events don’t have to mean permanent consequences.
With ample patience, time, and the right help, parents and children can overcome traumatic experiences together. In this guide, you’ll learn powerful tips on healing from trauma.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is the immediate or prolonged result of an adverse event. Trauma may stem from physical or sexual abuse, neglect, unhealthy interpersonal relationships, acts of terror, or natural disasters.
According to SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Inforced Approach, the traumatic experience occurs in three parts [*]:
- The traumatic event: These circumstances inflict physical, emotional, and mental pain onto the patient. These events need not be life-threatening but are often highly impactful.
- The experience: No two people experience the same traumatic event identically. For example, one may perceive a natural disaster like a flood or fire as highly traumatic, while another may perceive it as an unforgettable adventure.
- The impact: Traumatic experiences can result in mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. The severity of these issues varies from person to person.
Is It Possible to Heal from Trauma?
Healing from trauma is possible but entails a different process than healing from physical injuries. Symptoms can remain unchanged or worsen without actively confronting and processing one’s trauma.
How Long Does It Take to Heal from Trauma?
Healing from trauma is not linear. Relapses are possible. How long it takes someone to heal from their trauma depends entirely on their willingness to undergo treatment.
However, according to the CDC, most patients report improved mood three months after experiencing a traumatic event [*]. Trauma that lasts longer than this period often develops into post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
Kids and teens with PTSD experience the following symptoms:
- Re-living: The child may experience flashbacks and severe emotional reactions to the traumatic events. They may experience fear, guilt, or sadness. Reactions are sometimes physical and manifest as shaking, chills, or palpitations.
- Intense emotions: The child may feel disproportionately irritable and angry or experience ongoing fear and sadness. In addition, the child may be unable to feel or express positive emotions.
- Avoidance: The child may avoid people, places, and activities they once enjoyed if it reminds them of the traumatic event.
10 Tips on How to Heal from Trauma
There is no “winning” equation for healing from trauma, but these coping mechanisms can make the process easier for you and your child.
1. Acknowledge the event
After a traumatic event, people may slip into denial as a coping mechanism. Your child can pretend it never happened without acknowledging the event's significance. However, doing so can also delay the healing process. Denying childhood trauma, for instance, can lead to psychological and physiological problems, such as juvenile delinquency, risky sexual behaviors, and maltreatment toward others.
Acknowledging the event can feel uncomfortable, but it’s the first step to a rewarding outcome.
Tip: Create an environment that’s safe enough for your child to want to share details about their experience. Introduce the discussion naturally — never force it.
2. Accept support
Someone who wants to heal must learn to accept support in various forms, such as from loved ones, domestic partners, communities, and professional therapists.
Tip: When your child pushes you away, understand that they may believe they have the adequate skills to manage their emotions independently. Do not depict this as an outright rejection. Your child may need more time.
3. Find the right help
What the “right” help looks like varies from person to person. Perhaps they are more comfortable with a trauma-informed therapist. Others may be more amicable to trauma-specific support groups.
Tip: If you already belong to a community organization, consider whether they have opportunities for trauma-specific support.
4. Practice self-care
Simply put, self-care feels good, especially after a traumatic event. However, overpowering feelings of sadness, shame, anger, or guilt can make it challenging to want to treat yourself compassionately.
Activities as simple as taking a long bath, enjoying a good meal, exercising, watching a favorite series, or getting a massage can be challenging for someone hyper-focused on the negative impact of a traumatic event.
Tip: Start with basic skills your child may neglect, such as hygiene, healthy physical activity, and a good diet. Encourage simple, easy-to-do activities like going for a walk, visiting the park, or whipping up a delicious meal. Refer to our PDF handout on self-care activities for kids and teens for more ideas.
5. Connect with others
Social support contributes significantly to psychological health. Immersing oneself in a kindred community can help cope with stress, improve motivation, and encourage healthy choices [*].
Tip: If your child isn’t ready to attend a support group, encourage them to confide in trusted friends. The ongoing sense of community may motivate them to seek professional help eventually.
6. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
We can become more deliberate about our actions when we pay close attention to every moment. Through mindfulness, people experiencing trauma can become more in tune with their feelings and learn to respond appropriately.
Meditation is one such method of immediate relaxation and relief. Gentle movements and inspiring thoughts can provide much-needed calm, comfort, and peace.
Tip: Help your child become mindful by confirming what you are hearing. For instance, if your child expresses concern, acknowledge that you can see they are worried. Don’t be dismissive. Improve your child’s mindfulness and meditation techniques with our helpful handout.
7. Avoid substances and addictions
Turning to addictions may provide immediate relief but cause long-term problems. Contrary to popular belief, drinking alcohol and partaking in substance abuse aren’t the only addictions trauma patients must combat. Individuals might also engage in the following:
- Binge eating
- Obsessing over schoolwork
Taking healthy coping mechanisms to extremes can quickly become destructive and counterproductive.
Tip: Do not belittle your child’s behavior. Let them know you understand why they may engage in specific behaviors, such as getting drunk or using drugs, and suggest healthier outlets.
8. Engage in something creative
Enjoying oneself is an underrated recovery tool. Understandably, the desire to do nothing after a traumatic event is natural and even expected. As such, engaging one’s brain in creative behaviors isn’t just distracting but can improve psychological outcomes in the long run.
Tip: Try something new with your child like painting a picture, writing a poem, composing a song, or learning a new recipe. Do not simply enroll them in an extracurricular activity they have not expressed interest in. Consider their desires and inclinations.
9. Try physical movement
Due to poor coping mechanisms; patients may neglect their physical health. However, exercising and engaging in physical movement can improve symptoms of PTSD, as they release feel-good chemicals called endorphins [*].
Tip: Introduce physical movement gradually. If your child is hardly getting out of bed, sudden bouts of sports or exercise may be too taxing on the body.
10. Take Breaks
Remember that there is no shortcut to healing. Healing from trauma demands significant energy, which can quickly become depleted through over-exertion. Trauma patients must be gentle with themselves, as rushing the process may only cause more considerable disappointment.
Tip: Don’t perceive a bad day as a “failure.” Quiet days wherein your child prefers to sit alone with their thoughts are part of the process. Give them space, especially when they ask for it. You don’t always have to intervene.
Can Trauma Resurface After Seeming to Have Healed?
Unfortunately, traumatic memories can resurface unexpectedly. They can arise when you least expect them and be persistent or unsettling. Traumatic resurfacing is particularly common in adults with childhood trauma.
However, recovering from trauma is hardly a straight path, and it can take a long time to recover fully.
The Bottom Line
Recovering from a traumatic experience takes effort, time, and the occasional relapse. While blocking out painful memories can provide immediate relief, it can prevent you or your child from fully processing the trauma.
With patience and the right resources, the healing journey can be a fulfilling one. Our trauma worksheets for kids and teens can provide parents and caregivers with much-needed tips for providing continued support.Sources:
- SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach Prepared by SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative. 2014.
- CDC. Coping with a Traumatic Event: What Is a Traumatic Event? 2023.
- How does social support enhance resilience in the trauma-exposed individual? 2015.
- Hegberg NJ, Hayes JP, Hayes SM. Exercise Intervention in PTSD: A Narrative Review and Rationale for Implementation. 2019.