Supporting Families to Help Young Children through Trauma

by Colleen Young and Chris Dunkerly

At the Office of Child Development, we support young children by supporting their caregivers. When traumatic events happen, young children look to these important adults for answers, comfort, and love. The quality of these key relationships is the cornerstone of infant and early childhood mental health.

Babies are born completely dependent on their primary caregivers and instinctively regulate to the emotions of these most important adults as a survival mechanism. As an example, research suggests that babies’ brains change in response to the stress of their mothers, even before birth. Children feel safest in the presence of calm, caring adults with whom they have established positive relationships.

Parenting is a big job.

Even in the best of circumstances, caregivers of young children need a lot of support from others. When families don’t have financial resources or other natural supports to provide that help, a home visitor can be just what’s needed. Many of the programs we manage and support in the Office of Child Development, such as Early Head Start and Family Support, focus on enhancing caregiver-child relationships. In these programs, we teach home visitors to help families identify their own strengths, break unhealthy patterns, and build the confidence and skills they need to feel secure in their parenting.

Unfortunately, trauma and adverse childhood experiences are an all too common reality for many of the children and families supported by our work. Poverty, violence, systemic racism, and many other forms of injustice impact the daily lives of families and communities. New parents often rely on their own experiences of being parented to determine how they will parent their children. For some who did not grow up with nurturing, available caregivers, learning positive parenting practices can seem like learning a foreign language. In this case, the language is love.

One long-standing model of supporting families is our Family Foundations Early Head Start program. In this program, we use a team approach, providing qualified infant mental health expertise to staff through reflective supervision and case consultation. Our home visitors show up each week excited and grateful that the family has allowed us into their home. With the support of a mental health clinician, families can tell their stories, reflecting on the history of their own family relationships. We meet families where they are, listen without judgement, and wonder together how trauma may impact them both as a person and a parent. Together we cry, we hug, and we laugh.

Building the skills of the professionals who support families is essential to this work. In order to teach parent-child relationships, home visitors must first model what a loving relationship is by building their own relationships with new caregivers. This starts with trust and respect. Listening to parents and helping them feel valued. Filling their cup with love so they have something to pour into their babies. Teaching patience, kindness, and calmness by being patient, kind, and calm.

These are the skills that caregivers need to parent every day, but are especially important in times of stress and trauma. When families are able to build healthy, supportive relationships, children thrive. Here are some parent stories of resiliency through trauma that we hear in our work with families, in their own words:

“I came to Pittsburgh as a young single woman and mother with a newborn child. I had no family or support system. Many times I became nervous and discouraged, feeling overwhelmed. It wasn’t easy trying to find housing, childcare, and a job all alone. From the very first home visit, I immediately knew what it meant to be a part of the Family Support system. I was supported and not judged. Now, almost two years later, I am a confident, strong, and stable woman. Through Family Support, I found housing, gained employment, and built positive parenting skills. I’m also proud to say, I am now Vice President of all the centers’ parent[s]. I’m a successful woman with two jobs now and raising my daughter on my own.” – Iyanna, Family Support

“I am so grateful for Family Foundations Early Head Start for hiring Ricky, my home visitor.  He is a great role model in the community and displays great love and support for me and my son.  He also helps me understand great ways to play, interact and be a successful mom, thanks.” – Anonymous, EHS

“You’ve looked out for us when we couldn’t see the forest for trees, when we thought we were broken, and you were always there to show us that we were just waiting for the positive change to come.” – Yolanda, Family Support

“It’s about people in your life who accept you for who you are, support you in things you choose to do and no matter what are there for you with open arms, an open mind, acceptance, and respect.” - EHS Home Visitor & Mom

“Family Support is an excellent program for helping families meet their goals and become better as a family. Family Support is more than just support for families: it is the total experience that helped us become better in our relationships with others. There is plenty of love and concern shared. It has been a true blessing to have the program available to us.” – Eliska, Family Support

Recommendations for caregivers supporting young children through grief and trauma:

  • Find healthy ways for caregivers to process their own emotions so that they can be present for the needs of children. Focus on rest and self-care.
  • Learn to breathe slowly and deeply. Children will often adjust their own breathing as well.
  • Learn to recognize signs of trauma and distress, which for young children may appear as changes in behavior, appetite, or sleep patterns.
  • Be patient with children who may regress in previously demonstrated developmental skills, such as speech or toileting practices.
  • Follow the child’s lead on the need for physical closeness, helping the child feel safe and secure is far more important than reinforcing independence after a trauma.
  • Even the youngest non-verbal children can benefit from talking about their feelings. Books are a great way to guide these conversations. Tell them, “It’s ok to feel scared. I will help keep you safe. I am here for you.”
  • Make sure both caregivers and children know it’s ok to play and laugh after a tragedy. Getting back into a healthy routine can help everyone feel secure and reassured.

From the Office of Child Development, Colleen Young (pictured) is the Director of Community Programs and Chris Dunkerley works as the Director of Early Head Start. Many of the programs the Office of Child Development manages and supports, such as Early Head Start and Family Support, focus on enhancing caregiver-child relationships. When traumatic events happen, young children look to these important adults for answers, comfort, and love.