Helping A Traumatized Child

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When a child is coping with a major trauma, it can leave parents feeling helpless.

That's one of the subjects that viewers raised in their letters to Saturday Early Show family and adolescence counselor Mike Riera.

Last year, 340,000 kids ages 15 and older were injured in car crashes. So, this letter will be of interest to a lot of families.

Dear Mike,

My 16-year-old son and his friends were in a serious car accident. My son pulled the unconscious driver out, and it took the Jaws of Life to rescue his best friend. The boys will be all right, but my son wishes that he'd been the unconscious one so he wouldn't keep playing the scene in his head. What steps should we take?

Mike's Response:

Obviously, this is an awful situation. It is one that I've dealt with too many times in my career, usually with teen-age male drivers, because they have far more accidents than their female peers.

Research shows that most people who survive serious automobile accidents don't develop mental health problems that warrant professional treatment. However, some do, usually in the form of depression, anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, which can include nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia.

According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, there are three areas of care that help traumatic stress:

  • Physical recovery: The shorter, the better.
  • Social support: Family and friends lend assistance, mostly in the form of listening and positive encouragement.
  • Re-engagement with normal life: As soon as possible, your son should get back to his normal routine.
In short, keep your son talking about the accident, encourage him to resume his daily activities, support him in spending time with his friends who were injured and watch him closely for ongoing changes in terms of anxiety or depression. In that case, you should get him some professional counseling.

Parents should talk to their children about accidents like the one described here and always insist they wear seatbelts. Then, they should set strong limits, because this is clearly a huge health and safety issue. Say something along the lines of: "If I ever see or hear of you in a car without a seat belt on, then we'll take away your privilege to drive for a year — seat belts are that big a deal."

The next letter is far less serious, but it is one that causes all sorts of aggravation for parents.

Dear Mike,

My daughter's teachers say she's a great student and a good helper. At home, she is a bump on a log. I can tell her 20 times to clean her room. She'll say, "My room is done," and away she goes with the neighborhood kids. It's not done. Grounding her doesn't work. How do I get my 11-year-old to do her chores?

Mike's Response:

I don't mean to belittle this question, and I know that what I'm about to say is not what this parent wants to hear, but this does sound about right for an 11-year-old girl. She's between being a child and a teen-ager, and experimenting with her worst traits at home. This doesn't mean there isn't anything you can do about this behavior.

First, when you say you tell her 20 times without results, it means you need to re-evaluate how you are telling her. Do you have her undivided attention? If not, then don't say anything until you do. Telling her to clean her room while she's engrossed in some television program won't get you anywhere.

Second, have a talk with her about telling the truth so that the next time she says she has done something that you later learn she didn't do, she knows what will happen. You'll come looking for her and insist that she stop whatever she is doing and make her come home and do what she said she had already done.

Timing is everything. Work with her natural rhythms. That is, it's hard for most 11-year-olds to do much right after school. So perhaps the mother and daughter should help each other with 15 minutes of cleanup together. Maybe you put away the dishes while she picks up her book bag and hangs up her coat. Maybe you even put some music on while you work. Set the egg timer to keep it honest. This way, you ritualize the cleaning rather than starting anew every day. Make it a time of working side-by-side rather than one of nagging and avoiding. Just be warned: It'll take a couple of weeks of consistent enforcement before it becomes normal.