Helping children deal with frightening memories

Q: My 6-year-old son has been recently traumatized by viewing a video clip of an extremely scary scene. My older daughter showed him this clip. My son is now extremely upset at night, can not sleep, covers his head with blankets, and can not be alone in any room of the house. He will not even go outside alone. He keeps asking when the images will go away in his head. This has been going on for 3 weeks now. I am worried about his mental health. Should I take him to a therapist?

Thank you,

A: Dad -

I'd better start with a major disclaimer here: I am not a therapist, and do not diagnose or dispense medical or psychological advice. If your gut tells you to take your son to a therapist, please do so.

That said, there are some things you can try at home first that might be helpful:

One is to reframe what your son is going through, both for him and in your own mind. What he's doing is discharging energy. When we see something scary, we naturally get into fight/flight mode, without even thinking about it. It's one of the ways that Mother Nature keeps us safe - wiring us for instinctively protective reactions which don't have to be consciously decided upon first (conscious decisions take way too much time!) Our bodies automatically secrete neurochemicals that prepare us to either run away from danger or defend ourselves against it.

When it's a movie or a story that has scared us, rather than, say, an encounter with a tiger in the jungle, we don't actually get to fight or run, and therefore those neurochemicals don't get used up. Instead, we sort of stew in them.

The body feels their presence, and therefore remains in somewhat of a Red Alert stage, prepped for a quick reaction. We can actively facilitate the release of those neurochemicals, and thus a return to a baseline state of relaxation, in several ways.

Vigorous physical activity accompanied by laughter is a great way to push the reset button. I'm not a fan of tickling, so instead I recommend a hearty game of football, or perhaps a play wrestling match. It's helpful if your son has a chance to successfully push against some gentle resistance, and come out victorious.

In other words, put up a fight, but make sure he dominates you in the end. The sillier the better, so lead the way by starting to laugh yourself, and he will follow. That should help him discharge a considerable bit of energy. If you notice he is tensing up before bedtime, that might be a good time to do a little bit of wrestling. Not so much that he gets overly wound up, but just enough to release some energy. You'll be able to tell where that line is.

There are also several simple and noninvasive modalities that involve tapping on the body to release the traces of trauma. One of my favorites is EFT, the Emotional Freedom Technique, which you can learn for free at Rebecca Marina also has a free tutorial here:

My homemade shortcut version is this: Tell your son you are going to help him clear those scary memories out by tapping his reset button, and that he can do this himself anytime he wants. Then hold him in your lap, and tap gently on the crown of his head, in the place sort of toward the back of where a center part would be. I think of it as the place where it seems like all the hair comes from. Some of us have a whorl there.

Tap very gently while saying these phrases out loud so he can hear them:

Even though I have these scary pictures in my head, I'm still a great kid.

Even though I can't get these pictures to go away, Daddy loves me and I'm a great kid.

Even though I really want these scary pictures to go away, but I don't know how to make them leave, I'm still a great kid.

You can learn longer versions of this technique, but I think it's good to keep it very short and simple at this point, so he can remember it later if he wants to use it on his own. I've seen this technique rapidly and completely release fear and trauma, often in less than a minute. He might just hop off your lap good as new, or he might want you to do it again if a new circumstance triggers fear, or before bedtime each night for a little while. Please don't force it on him though. Let him be in charge of it. If he doesn't want it, use one of the other techniques.

Another technique that can help clear trauma is bilateral tapping. While he is telling you that he is scared, gently tap on alternating sides of his body using the rhythm of a heartbeat. You can do this while hugging him or holding him. Sometimes I do it while giving a foot massage. Something about crossing the midline helps the brain to integrate and release trauma. I don't fully understand the science behind it, but I've seen it work time and time again.

I believe that EMDR, which is a respected therapeutic intervention, is grounded in this strategy, so a quick google of that might turn up the science behind it. And if you do decide to take him to a therapist, I'd look for one who is well versed in applying this technique with young children.

It's fine to go ahead and keep him company for a while. Young children are wired to turn to their loving caregivers for help discharging overwhelming energy. It's beautiful that he sees you as a source of support and protection. He won't need this much support forever, but he needs it now, and it's okay to give it to him. Let him know you are there for him, and you will help him until those scary pictures go away.

Don't try to reason with him at this point, or orient him to reality, or tell him it was just a movie, or force him to fight through his fears alone. Just comfort him, listen to his fears, and stay as calm as you possibly can. In the shelter and safety of your love and acceptance, his psyche can find the container it needs to do the work of clearing this stuff out.

He may need to cry quite a bit, so if you find crying hard to take, get some support for yourself so you can remain calm and collected. If there are other family members around that he is also securely attached to, tag team with them to give each other a break.

I hope this is helpful. Please keep me posted, and good luck! He's a lucky guy to have a father who is so actively invested in his well-being.

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