“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
Spring is a time of transition, a time of change. As I feel the weather start to sway toward warmth and watch the new buds begin to emerge, I am reminded of how the only thing consistent in life is change. The truth is: seasons change, people change and feelings change.
Change can be exciting and terrifying to everyone, both young and old. But change for children with trauma is something very different; for these children, change seems threatening. As those charged with the care of these children, it is vital for us to understand just what change means for them. When a child has experienced inconsistency, disappointment, and abuse, repeated experiences of fear and uncertainty cause the child’s stress response system to be on high alert. When change is seen as a threat, the child’s already heightened alert system responds in a big way. This threat response, in reaction to even slight changes, is at the heart of so many of the behaviors we witness as caregivers and clinicians.
When deciding how to best meet a child’s needs during times of transition, first I reflect on the truth that the God I serve is the God of yesterday, today and forever. He is never changing, always consistent and readily available to us as His children. Malachi 3:6 says it so succinctly, “For I the Lord do not change.” As a believer, parent and clinician, then I ask the question, How can I reflect the consistent love of God to my children, especially in times of transition? I believe the answer is: I must show up in the same ways day after day after day. First, we all must simply show up and love. Building everything else on a foundation of love, we surely will not falter.
As caregivers of traumatized children, it is vital for us to provide warm and consistent routines, even in times of change. This consistent, repetitive behavior shows the child that no matter what some things never change and can be trusted. These repetitive behaviors may be as simple as a morning or bedtime routine done every day, no matter what. Even if we’re late, even if we’re tired and even if we’ve misbehaved, the morning or bedtime routines don’t change. It may be as simple as a prayer, a song, or a saying. But if it never falters, your child can depend upon it happening day in and day out.
These small consistent actions will build more trust and security than you imagine. Letting a child know what to expect is another practical behavior that can make a world of difference. Often the children who come to us have dealt with numerous changes and losses, many that they did not see coming. The more information we can give children, the safer the situation will feel to them. For example, if you are planning a visit or trip, let the child know the time they will be leaving, how long they will be staying, and when you will return to pick them up. These simple facts create guardrails to help our children feel safer. Withholding information breeds fear, and we want to drive away as much fear as possible. Showing children pictures of a new school or camp and talking with them about this new place will help them feel like they will be ok because they know what is happening.
And finally, being able to process all the emotions associated with change is crucial. Sometimes we avoid bringing up hard topics for fear of “stirring something up.” However, children need to know that we recognize when things are hard and we are not afraid to talk about them. Our children need for us to simply sit down with them individually and allow them to express their emotions, without trying to fix the situation. Teaching our children to identify and sit with these hard emotions allows them to see that they can survive these hard moments, and they are not alone in them. We teach our children how to manage emotions by the ways we manage our own. When we admit fear but lean into the Lord and choose courage, we give them the strength to do the same.
It’s difficult to be a trauma-informed caregiver during a season of change. We can’t anticipate all the behaviors, feelings, and challenges that may come with it. However, if we choose to be consistent, loving and patient, we can create a safe space to experience all the changes that life has in store for us. In my times of uncertainty, I cling to this promise from Joshua 1:9, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Change will always come, but as followers of Christ, we are well equipped for it and never alone in the changes we experience.
May the beautiful changes of spring bless you all!