This article was originally published in Pact’s Point of View Newsletter in 2016.

Trauma is part of life. So is resiliency. Trauma is not simply an event itself; trauma is in the nervous system. When our nervous system senses danger and threat—and this is different for every system—our primal, instinctual responses are activated as mechanisms to protect us and prepare us for survival. We are biologically programmed to fight, flee, or freeze in response to a perceived inescapable threat, and the younger we are, the more likely something is to be perceived as an inescapable threat. Signs of trauma often include hyperarousal, constriction, and dissociation.

Feelings of numbness (or freeze) often result in hopelessness or helplessness that, when trauma is not worked through physiologically, could remain with the child who might then live in a more constant state of hyperarousal.

how to respond to a physiological reaction to trauma

1. Understand that your child may be experiencing symptoms of trauma; you may know the situation that was traumatic or you may not.

2. Check in on your own body’s response to the trauma and regulate yourself; do what you need to calm yourself down as your calm will help your child.

3. Assess the level of distress of your child. Affirm for them that you are there with them and they are now safe.

4. Allow for the shock to wear off and for the child to become aware of the sensations in their body. – How does their head feel? Their tummy? Try to have them verbalize what they are sensing- tingling, butterflies, pain, cold, hot.

5. If they need to shake or tremble or cry, let them. It is their body’s way of discharging the fear. Validate that these reactions are perfectly normal.

6. Trust in your child’s innate ability to heal.

7. Encourage rest.

8. Process emotions and the situation later after the child has calmed down. It is not necessary to talk about the event right away. It is more important to get them feeling safe and get the physiological fear out of their body.

We all have a threshold for over-stimulation. Just how much stimulation can we take before we lose it? This threshold is often genetically determined, and can fall along a spectrum of low to high for adults and children. Afternoons can often present a greater challenge for our kids in managing overstimulation, but every child is different.

questions to ask to uncover patterns

1. Is there a time of day at which my child tends to be more over-stimulated? What adjustments can I make in their day to help decrease their over-stimulation? Does my child have a low threshold or a high threshold for over-stimulation? Where are they on this spectrum?

2. What tends to over-stimulate/agitate them?

3. What activities can I do to decrease their over-stimulation?

4. Am I asking too much of my child in this moment? Are they too over-stimulated to do this task I am asking of them? What will help them regulate?

We all have an optimal level of arousal. Everyone’s brain needs an optimal level of arousal in order to process efficiently. Regular excerise, coffee, or simply standing up and walking around serve as methods of arousal. If kids’ brains are under-aroused, they will seek out sensory stimulation. This might happen through rough play, fidgeting, or jumping up and down. Our job is to help them get the arousal they need in an appropriate way.

Suggested post: Supporting an Overstimulated Child

Beth Wheeler

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Beth Wheeler is a Psychotherapist in Washington DC who specializes in working with trauma, sexuality and gender identity and integrating the mind and the body for healing. She is committed to being an advocate for racial justice and challenging herself to stretch beyond her own comfort zone.