Behavioral Health

Childhood Trauma

By: Dr. Sarah McNemar, MD

When you envision raising your children, you probably imagine sweet swaddled infants, young toddlers playing in the front yard, and older children bringing home schoolwork and a refrigerator covered in artwork. However, these seemingly normal things can all look different when you are parenting children from traumatic backgrounds. Raising a child with a rough, dark, or layered past (adoption, foster care, kinship care, natural disasters, ect.) comes with many additional challenges.  And, while reading books, listening to podcasts, and going to hours of training can be helpful in preparing you for walking alongside your child in their struggles, you just cannot ever fully anticipate the needs your child may have.

***It’s worth mentioning here that a child with a seemingly idyllic upbringing can still experience traumatic events and/or feel traumtized. So, basically, I’d recommend educating yourself about trauma in children no matter what your situation.***

It can also be challenging to tell exactly what has been traumatizing to your child in the past. What may seem like a huge trauma to one child may seem insignificant to another. Your child may—and likely does—have experiences in their past that you will never know the details of, but of which you will be handing the behaviors and trauma responses for many years to come. While there is no way to make a standardized treatment plan for all children from hard places, there are some common (and somewhat simple) steps you can take to help your child feel safe and begin to move past their past…

  • One of the most important and valuable things you can do as a parent is to be trauma informed. You cannot help your child if you do not understand that their behaviors are coming from a history of trauma; and not from a place of willful disobedience. Children from hard places will often have a “fight, flight, or freeze” response when they are in a stressful situation. In my opinion, it’s important to remember here that a stressful situation to your child may look ordinary in your eyes or even trivial at times. For example, a child may start screaming and running away in the parking lot of the store when they hear police sirens in the distance. Or they may go blank-faced and silent when asked why they disobeyed their teacher at school. Another child may become aggressive and start throwing things when told “No” to having a snack before dinner. All of these responses may seem over the top and out of place for the situation, but when you look at them through your “trauma glasses” you may realize that your child runs wild when they hear sirens because they recall deep in their memory being removed from their family of origin by police officers years ago. Your daughter may freeze when confronted with a misbehavior because she has never developed the language skills appropriate to her age because of neglect as an infant. And your son may throw the tantrum of the century when refused a snack because he has a real fear of going hungry and his primitive brain is now in overdrive and protection mode. I know this can seem like ALOT to take in…trying to sift through your child’s behaviors and figure out why they are responding the way they do is not exactly a quick and easy activity. An excellent resource (and a practical starting point) for learning more about trauma and the developing brain is, “The Connected Child” by Dr. Karen Purvis and the associated TCU Institute of Child Development.
  • Another key way you can help your child process trauma is to aid them in developing trusting, secure relationships with adults in their lives. Time and time again, I have seen this serve as an invaluable safety net for children who have had dark experiences. You yourself can provide this by being their sounding board. Be a safe place where they can express all of their big feelings and share with them some of your own hopes and fears. This type of relationship could also develop organically with a teacher, coach, or even another child’s parent. That said, this relationship could also require you to enlist help for yourself as well. If you feel in over your head and don’t even know where to turn to help your child find something like this, don’t be afraid to reach out to a trauma-informed therapist. Every child’s trauma is unique but the goal is the same: to rebuild—or build for the first time—a sense of stability.
  • Speaking of stability, cultivating consistency and patterns of predictability in your child’s life can do wonders for mending the deep wounds of trauma in their psyche. This can be as simple as commiting to yourself that for one month you will be on time (or even early) to pick your child up from school or from a play date. Showing your child that you aim to follow through and that you’re dependable through your actions is pretty crucial for building trust and for calming fears of abondment.
  •  Creating behavioral strategies to help your child navigate daily life also proves to help them work through their trauma. Depending on your child’s specific needs and deficits, this could look unique or even strange to an outsider’s perspective. For example, your son may need to continually carry a granola bar in his backpack to help him battle his history of food insecurity. Seems so small and trivial but if your son is constantly worried about where his lunch is coming from, he won’t be able to focus on math or being a good friend or managing his anxiety well. The granola bar can give him a sense of security that he literally will not go hungry and that he has options on hand if his stomach does start to rumble.
Trust me when I say that I know firsthand how overwhelming this can all feel. We cannot erase our child’s past…no matter how badly we may want to. It has happened, and the ripple effects will continue to be a part of their story for their entire life. But, try and remember that while you cannot erase their hurts, you can help your child heal.


With time, you truly can give your child hope for the future by educating yourself, helping them build secure and meaningful relationships with adults in their life, cultvating a sense of predictability, and creating behavioral strategies specific to their needs. You can always reach out to us at Parkside regarding this topic as well. I can promise you that your child’s provider values your family’s mental health just as much as your physical well-being. We also have a Behavioral Health team with several members who have experience with trauma in children and can certainly aid in helping families feel like they have a clear path towards growth.

This whole parenting thing is a marathon—not a sprint. And, for trauma specifically, there are no quick fixes or magic medications. Don’t get discouraged when you feel like your family is taking two steps forward and one step back. Forward movement is progress, and helping a child heal and feel loved and safe is worth all the effort, time, blood, sweat, and tears in the world.

Until next time,

Dr. Sarah McNemar

Parkside Provider, Medical Director (Powdersville), and mostly just “winging it” parent

  • Behavioral Health
  • Fatherhood
  • Motherhood
  • Teen
  • Toddler