How to be a Good Friend to a Parent of a Child Who Has Been Through Trauma

Chances are good that you know a person parenting a child who has been through tremendous or ongoing trauma (You can read SAMHSA’s “Types of Trauma” here). Perhaps your delightful playdate pal becomes embroiled in a nasty divorce and you discover their relationship was fraught with abuse. Maybe your favorite “ladies night out” girlfriend adopts a child out of trauma or becomes a foster parent. It could be that the best bud with whom you can’t wait to share empty nesting in a couple of years learns his daughter has been molested multiple times by a mutual friend. You might know very little about your friend’s experience or your friend might be leaning heavily on you for support. Either way, parenting a child who has experienced trauma can be isolating — so your friendship might be more meaningful to your friend than you know.

More importantly, by supporting your friend to be a stronger and healthier parent, you are helping your friend’s child have a stronger and healthier parent. Here are 12 ways to help.

1.  Expect to have your relationship change — and be okay with that.

No matter how close or chummy you were before, your friend is now a member of a category of parenting she sincerely hopes you will never have to experience. This means she has to dedicate a lot of time and resources to helping her child recover from trauma. Not only will her schedule be less open for you, but the majority of her thoughts and needs will likely be dominated by the thoughts and needs of her child. It’s not personal. But child trumps chum.

2.  Understand that if you ask how your friend is doing, you might hear a dose of realty, pain, sadness, or frustration.

People often don’t want to hear things that might shatter their idyllic view of the world or infuse them with heaviness, even if only for a moment. If you are one such person, please refrain from asking a parent whose child has been through trauma any personal questions — including “How are you?” Your silent or evasive response will only serve to further isolate the parent.

A more reliable sign of trauma is a sudden change in a child’s behavior, demeanor, habits, health, or appearance — if the child happens to demonstrate those changes publicly, that is.

Honestly, this doesn’t mean you can’t be pals. It just means, as stated in #1, that your friendship will change. If you were once close enough to share confidences, you likely won’t be anymore. There is also a good chance that your friend will not be able to devote as much of his dedicated social time to you while he seeks out friends who are able to accompany him when he is walking through heaviness.

3.  Assume that your friend still wants and needs some downtime.

Even though you might not be equipped to be her confidant anymore, your friend needs some healthy escapes. If you are a horrible listener, but a great tennis player, invite her to play a match or two. If your kids get along, get together for light recreational activity when possible. Remember #2, though, should she decline your invitations.

4.  Understand that you might not be able to see the trauma, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

People expect a child who has been through trauma to seem withdrawn and sullen or act out with challenging behaviors. While these are certainly responses to trauma, many kids don’t show these signs in public at all. When that is the case, people can be dismissive of their experience.  That makes it challenging to obtain the necessary help their children might need and the support they themselves need.

Furthermore, children are highly adaptable. What you might see as proof that your friend’s child isn’t really that traumatized, or has come through the worst part, might just be an example of some seriously enviable survival skills.  It is fairly common for children who have experienced trauma to overcompensate by displaying a most impressive self in public.

A more reliable sign of trauma is a sudden change in a child’s behavior, demeanor, habits, health, or appearance — if the child happens to demonstrate those changes publicly, that is.

5. Recognize that kids who have been through trauma often develop asynchronistically. Their parents might not yet know the extent of what this means for their children.

Depending upon the duration and severity of the trauma, your friend’s child could seem all over the place developmentally. She might be able to solve a Rubic’s Cube in two minutes flat and sing flawless arias at 15, but she might also wet the bed, not understand right from wrong, and prefer to hang out with much younger kids. Part of supporting your friend is understanding this and behaving accordingly.

Do not be surprised or take it personally if your friend’s daughter doesn’t want to do teen stuff with your daughter or misbehaves in the same manner a seven year old might.

It is okay that you cannot personally relate to what your friend is experiencing. She doesn’t need you to have walked in her shoes. She needs you to walk beside her.

While your friend is likely doing everything she can to make sure her daughter’s incongruous development is not hurtful or stressful for your own daughter, she can’t predict every way her daughter might react. She doesn’t know all the triggers that might propel an explosion or lead to challenging behaviors.

You can prepare your daughter by explaining that her friend might not always act her age or in line with what you have taught your child and that she should come talk to you if she has concerns.

6.  Be aware that your child may have had some rough patches in life, but that doesn’t mean you can relate to the experiences of your friend or your friend’s child (and that’s okay).

Going through typical childhood issues (and often even experiencing a single traumatic event) are not typically negatively life-altering or a shock to a child’s overall development in the way ongoing trauma can be.

Being pushed down on the playground stinks. It is not the same as spending formative years in multiple foster homes, some of them abusive. You cannot compare your situation to that of your friend’s child.

Needing to move in with a child’s grandparents while her mom looks for a new job is a huge adjustment. It is not the same as having lived in abject poverty. Do not claim that your child is having the same experience as your friend’s child when the holidays are tighter than normal.

It is okay that you cannot personally relate to what your friend is experiencing. She doesn’t need you to have walked in her shoes. She needs you to walk beside her.

7.  Refrain from sharing stories about people you know or people you’ve read about unless your friend requests them.

You’ll know your friend wants to hear about people you know whose children have experienced trauma because he’ll begin with something like, “Do you know anybody whose child…?” Without knowing the specific issues, treatments, and outcomes, though, your stories might be more harmful than helpful. You might be offering false hope or even dangerous advice.

8.  Keep your friend’s story and your friend’s child’s story private.

Just because your friend needs support or a confidant doesn’t mean she is giving you permission to share her story. You should assume privacy is important even if she does not ask you specifically to keep the information you learn private. You should make the same assumption even if you notice your friend is fairly open about her family’s experience.

This means that you shouldn’t be using your friend’s story to help out another friend (see #7). You shouldn’t post about your friend’s situation on social media without first asking. This includes posting a picture of your child and your friend’s child with a caption like, “So glad this little guy is feeling playful after the horrible year he’s had” or “Loved seeing this cutie at the hospital today, just before her 18th surgery to repair burns.” You shouldn’t even request prayers from your place of worship or assistance from other friends without first asking.

Remember that it is not just your friend’s story you are sharing, but your friend’s child’s story as well. Depending upon the circumstances, it could also be the story of a whole slew of other people (children of adoption and foster care have entire constellations of people attached to their story, a child of abuse shares a story with many people, etc.).

9.  Support your friend’s parenting choices, knowing that your friend might parent in a completely different way than you out of sheer necessity.

Children who have been through serious, ongoing trauma require a different kind of parenting. Where you might think his child should have been put in time-out, for example, for hitting your child in the sandbox, your friend might instead spend 10 minutes snuggling with his daughter on a park bench. This is because he knows that a time-out can interrupt his vital attachment with his child and trigger a feeling of rejection that hearkens back to her time in an orphanage. While you might secretly judge your friend as being too harsh on her child for keeping him on a strict schedule, she might understand that her son needs predictability and order to maintain a sense of safety after suffering from abuse.

These parenting choices might also challenge your friendship. He might not let his child go to your house unaccompanied, for example, because you have a gun, albeit well-secured, in the home. Your friend understands that suicide rates are higher for children who have been through trauma. He might deny all requests for sleep-overs because he is working to stabilize his daughter’s sleep health after years of poor sleep.

Please refrain from thrusting your parenting choices onto your friend. Unless it is clear that your friend is in complete denial of or is outright refusing to acknowledge his child’s post-traumatic needs and is acting abusively (see #10), you cannot assume your version of parenting would be effective for his child. Hopefully your friend has researched his child’s needs, is offering his child appropriate services, and has a support team helping him to parent the way that is best for his child.

10.  If you are concerned about the way your friend is handling her child’s trauma or treating her child, please do seek anonymous counsel from a professional to determine if you should report the family.

It is important that children who have been through trauma not be put through more trauma. If it is clear that your friend is abusing or neglecting her child, you need to step in and take action.

This is tricky because it is not always clear. You might stop by your friend’s house, for example, and hear blood-curdling screams coming from his child. You would have to investigate further before deciding whether or not this warrants reporting. Many children who have been through trauma have huge, sometimes turbulent outbursts, even into their teen years. Your might learn that your friend’s child has been acting out sexually and worry that this is a result of ongoing sexual abuse. Children who have been through trauma of any kind, whether sexual or not sexual, might act out sexually. You might even see suspicious marks or bruises on your friend’s child and assume these are marks of abuse. They might be. Or they might be the results of the child harming herself or even symptoms of a common response to trauma: klutziness. Lastly, your child’s friend could be making normal childhood mistakes, not necessarily related to trauma at all. 

Without knowing the specific issues, treatments, and outcomes, though, your stories might be more harmful than helpful. You might be offering false hope or even dangerous advice.

Ask. Ask your friend what might be happening. Ask anonymous professionals. Ask other parents of children who have been through trauma (without revealing identifying details). Observe the child. Though it is important to remove a child from an abusive situation, it is also important to avoid putting a child through further trauma by having her erroneously removed.

11.  Do not put your friend’s child or your friend on a pedestal.

Many children who have been through trauma develop strong survival instincts that make them appear stronger, happier, friendlier, smarter, more responsible than other children. It is tempting to paint such a child as a model of strength and courage. They are the feel-good story everyone craves: “I have this friend whose daughter was run over by a car and had to have 16 different operations to recover. But now she is this incredible piano player and seriously the nicest, most well-adjusted teenager. She inspires me.”

First, if you are getting your inspiration from a child who has been through hell and back, there is a good chance you might be disappointed by the same child if she fails at something or, worse, demonize the child if she demonstrates unhealthy or poor behavior. Secondly, the minute you put your friend’s child on a pedestal, your friend loses a confidant. You are no longer an objective listener. Because you want your friend’s child to continue to inspire you, you will likely minimize her concerns.

Furthermore, your friend does not want to serve as anyone’s hero for caring for a child who has been through trauma. When you really think about it, you are communicating to your friend that her child’s trauma benefits you. And you are also telling her that you really don’t want to hear anything outside of your hero narrative for her.

12. Understand that many children who have been through trauma have other struggles as well, some of them direct results of the trauma (ASD, depression, separation anxiety, enuresis, etc.).

Along the lines of  #9, it is important to trust that your friend is well-versed in (or intently learning about) the secondary challenges with which his child is living. And, like trauma, they may or may not be evident to people outside of the immediate family.

 

You can be a good friend without having parented a child who has experienced trauma yourself. In some ways, this might even make you more objective and able to be present for your friend. Simply reframing your definition of the friendship to include providing the kind of support you are capable of providing is an important part of the process.

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