Kids & Trauma – 5 Practical Ways to Soothe Your Child

10 March 2024

A traumatic incident or more chronic experience can have profound effects on children. Being able to create more calming environments at home can complement therapies and make a big difference in healing childhood trauma – for your child, you, and your family.

Incorporating the principles of neuroplasticity (reorganising and forming new connections) and the benefits of calming sensory environments we’ll explore some of the ways that children and young people can learn positive ways to soothe themselves as they heal.

What is trauma anyway?

Childhood trauma is the experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects. (National Institute of Mental Health, USA)

It’s so important to appreciate that trauma is less about the event and more about how it was experienced. If a child feels overwhelmed, terrified, alone, or fearful, it doesn’t matter if someone observing the event thinks it was that big a deal. The emotional impact on that child is very real.

When children are young, they may not be able to tell you about an event that was traumatic for them or express their feelings with words. We see it in changed or maladaptive behaviours.

Supporting healing

Alongside professional help (when needed), there are strategies that you can adopt at home that can help your child heal.

Restlessness, agitation, sleep disturbance, and restlessness are common behaviours among kids who’ve experienced trauma. The strategies outlined below are based on our latest understanding of the brain and our emotions and how we can create environments and help a child learn positive, self-soothing behaviours.

1. Rhythm

Let’s start with the science. Do you ever find yourself bliss out by colouring in (those books are popular for a reason!), chilling while bouncing a basketball, or pacing figure-of-eights when you’re on an important phone? Then you know all about the soothing nature of rhythm.

Repetitive movements have been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system, helping children regulate their emotions and reduce anxiety. Engaging in activities such as rocking, swinging, or rhythmic movements can stimulate the brain’s reward system, promoting the release of neurotransmitters associated with relaxation.

Research by Porges (2011) highlights the importance of activities that engage the vagus nerve, which plays a crucial role in regulating the autonomic nervous system. Repetitive movements can stimulate the vagus nerve, promoting a sense of calm and safety. Parents can introduce activities like rocking chairs, gentle swings, or even structured activities like dance to incorporate these beneficial movements into their child’s routine.

Depending on age, some of the strategies you could explore with your child include:

  • Room (and permission) to pace
  • Fidget objects
  • Bouncing a ball / or hitting a tennis ball against a wall
  • Swimming laps
  • Colouring in
  • Drumming
  • Listening to a favourite song – on repeat
  • Swinging on a swing
  • Playing with a yo-yo
  • Reading a familiar and loved book

2. Mindful breathing and meditation

Mindful breathing and meditation practices are effective tools for promoting self-soothing and emotional regulation for all ages. These techniques focus on the present moment, encouraging children to pay attention to their breath and sensations in a non-judgmental manner.

Research suggests that mindfulness practices can positively impact brain structure and function, influencing areas related to emotional regulation and stress response (Tang et al., 2015). As a parent or carer, you can guide your children through age-appropriate mindfulness exercises, fostering a sense of awareness and helping them develop coping mechanisms for challenging emotions.

There are treasure troves of techniques and ideas in this space that could be just perfect for your little (or not so little) one. A few to try include:

  • Lion’s breath (what 4-year-old wouldn’t like this!)
  • Box breathing
  • Guided meditation stories
  • Kids’ yoga
  • Sitali breath (another one that means sticking your tongue out)
  • Grounding – the simplicity of barefoot connection to the earth
  • Quiet walk in nature
  • Sand play / play dough

3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a technique that involves tensing and then slowly releasing different muscle groups, promoting physical and mental relaxation. This method can be particularly beneficial for children experiencing heightened stress and agitation.

Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of PMR in reducing anxiety and improving sleep quality in both children and adults (Khushboo et al., 2016). As a parent or carer, you can incorporate PMR into your child’s bedtime routine, helping them unwind and prepare for a restful night’s sleep.

A great life-long strategy to have when the going gets tough.

4. Sensory environments and products

As kids, many of us will have had a comfort toy that we dragged around until it fell apart! Taking that same principle, it is worth considering some of the therapeutic approaches and products that specifically target heightened emotional states.

Creating calming sensory environments is all about engaging the senses soothingly and positively. This can include soft lighting, soothing music, comforting textures, and aromatherapy. Such environments contribute to sensory integration, helping children regulate their responses to stimuli.

Research on sensory-based interventions supports their effectiveness in promoting self-regulation in children with trauma-related challenges (Lane et al., 2015). Think about designing a specific space within the home, such as a cozy corner with soft lighting, a memory foam mat, soft blankets, and calming scents, where your child can retreat when feeling overwhelmed.

Some of the popular products for children include:

  • Weighted blankets and vests, weighted toys (awesome for little ones) to apply deep pressure therapy
  • Portable white noise machine to create a sound bubble and ease the outside world distractions
  • Body pillows for cuddling up with and comfort

5. Animal friends

Connection to animals is almost instinctive in its ability to promote calm. The presence of animals can create a sense of comfort and security, encouraging children to express themselves more openly. As a therapeutic approach, animal therapy has shown promise in reducing anxiety and promoting emotional well-being in children.

There’s some good science showing how it can improve brain function. Studies have indicated that animal-assisted therapy can have positive effects on neurotransmitters associated with stress reduction, contributing to improved emotional regulation (Winkelman, 2018).

While not everyone has a connection to a much-loved family pet as a healing resource, structured interactions with therapy animals or visits to animal-assisted therapy programs can provide similar benefits.

Last thoughts

Incorporating the latest in brain science, age-old practices, and common sense can significantly enhance your confidence and ability to create a more calming environment for a traumatised child. In collaboration with your mental health professional, these approaches, when integrated into daily routines, can contribute to the rewiring of the brain’s response to stress and promote emotional well-being.

And you know what, most of these strategies can be applied to adults as well!

Calm a Calm