Five Ways to Empower Your Homeschooled Child to Cope with Trauma
Growing up is not easy. Children face painful experiences regularly—like a scraped knee or the death of a beloved pet. While such experiences are painful, not all of them are considered traumatic. Traumatic events have certain, set features: they are marked by “sudden or unexpected events; the shocking nature of such events; death or threat to life or bodily integrity; and/or the subjective feeling of intense terror, horror, or helplessness” (Cohen, Mannarino, and Deblinger, Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents, 2006, p. 3). These events can range from child sexual abuse to witnessing parental domestic violence to mass shootings.
Homeschooling communities are by no means immune from trauma. The horrific 2007 mass shooting in Colorado Springs, where a homeschooled alumnus killed two homeschooled girls and wounded their sister and dad, is a tragic example of how trauma can break into even sheltered homeschoolers’ lives.
There are many different ways you as a parent or caregiver can help your child cope in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Specifically as a homeschooling parent or caregiver, you can incorporate practices to encourage empowerment and self-regulation into your child’s homeschool program. The following are five ways you can do that.
Disclaimer: If your child has experienced trauma, you should take them to see a trauma professional like a licensed mental health specialist as soon as you are able. The following strategies are meant to complement, not replace, professional help.
It is crucial to realize that you and your child are not alone. Other children have faced the same scary problems your child is facing, and other parents have had to courageously weather the storm along with their children. So you don’t have to walk this road alone. Others have walked it; others are walking it right now. Those that have gone before you have left guides. For example, if your child witnessed domestic violence, there are books written specifically for children who have experienced that. Or if your child went through the death of a close relative, there are books about that, too. Many are written by children themselves. Here are two examples of such book lists: here and here. (Note: these lists are given simply as examples; we have neither reviewed nor endorsed these books.) In Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents, Cohen, Mannarino, and Deblinger write, “These books convey to children that they are not alone in what they experienced, that their feelings are expected, given what occurred, and that there are ways to deal with their painful feelings that result in personal growth and healing” (p. 60).
Give your child a break from a few homework readings (if they want a break) and let them read books like these. Better yet, let them pick out some books themselves. (And of course, if your child would feel safer getting about into the regular swing of things, don’t force them to take a break. Listen to your child and partner with them in their walk towards healing.)
Mindfulness means being in the here and now. It means grounding yourself in your body and your feelings—knowing where you are, who you are, and what you’re experiencing. In the aftermath of trauma, children often have a hard time remembering and knowing these things. Trauma shakes them up. It can make them disassociate—making them feel foggy, detached, and emotionless. Trauma can also make children feel unregulated—making them act out in unhealthy, rash, or volatile ways. Mindfulness can help bring both disassociated and unregulated children back to the present moment.
Mindfulness can be accomplished in a number of ways. One way is focused breathing. Have your child breathe in deeply—so that their tummy protrudes. If your children is young, have them imagine their favorite stuffed animal hugging their tummy as it expands and deflates. Once they get the hang of that, have them practice breathing in for five counts, then exhaling normally. Once they master that, have them breathe in for five counts and then breathe out for five counts. Repeat as needed.
Here are two guides to breathing exercises for children: here and here.
Another mindfulness method is prayer or meditation. If you are one of the many conservative Christians who homeschool, “meditation” might raise a red flag for you. So please know that, by “meditation,” it is not being suggested that you start chanting to a god you consider false. Meditation can take many forms; in fact, many Christian saints and thinkers were or are fans of meditation, such as Teresa of Avila, Charles Spurgeon, and Thomas Merton. In its most basic form, meditation is “the art of being totally in the present moment—aware of, but not wrapped up in, what is happening around you” (Cohen, Mannarino, and Deblinger, p. 79). Prayer is an example of meditation: Jesus meditated in the Garden of Gethsemane when he left his disciples for a quiet spot and prayed (Matthew 26:36-46).
Simply have you and your child sit up straight, either on a comfortable chair or a cushion. Practice the aforementioned focused breathing. Then, closing your eyes, silently recite something that is meaningful for you—perhaps the Lord’s Prayer or a short phrase like “Jesus Loves Me.” Or your child can just go to a quiet spot and pray like Jesus did. (If you want other religious or non-religious options, simply Google, “trauma and meditation.”
You can incorporate mindfulness activities into your homeschooling day. As mindfulness helps children become grounded and focused, it is a great activity to start your day with, when you do morning school routines—e.g., when you might recite the Pledge of Allegiance or read a morning Bible passage. Just add 10 minutes of “being mindful” or “quiet” time or give your children 10 minutes to collect their thoughts and pray silently and undisturbed.
Relaxation, like mindfulness, is a way to ground yourself in the here and now. It helps your child to let go of racing or painful feelings.
Explain to your child that, when a person is stressed, their muscles become tense and sore (you can even incorporate this into an anatomy lesson!). When a person is relaxed, their muscles feel loose and relaxed. Then have your child, starting with their toes, tense each set of muscles—and then relax them. Have your child begin with their toes and work their way all the way up to their head, tensing then relaxing each muscle group as they go.
You can incorporate relaxation activities into your homeschooling day any time, though it might be a good idea to employ it during breaks throughout the day. School can be stressful in itself; school after trauma can be even more stressful. Taking some breaks throughout the day to intentionally unwind and relax can be very helpful for children.
Here are two guides to relaxation exercises for children: here and here.
5. Parental Self-Care
Watching your children go through a traumatic event can be traumatic for you, too! It can also disrupt normal parenting and family practices you value. Cohen, Mannarino, and Deblinger note that, “In the face of a child’s experiencing a severely traumatic life event, even the most competent parent may have difficulty in parenting effectively” (p. 67). So if you’re feeling traumatized or overwhelmed yourself, know that is completely normal. You’re not a failure.
At the same time, if you’re not in a good place emotionally and mentally, you’re not going to be able to help your children. So remember: caring for others requires you care for your self! You deserve self-care, too! Use the above four strategies in your own personal life. Get some books about how to help your child go through the specific trauma they experienced. Practice mindfulness. Pray or meditate. Give yourself permission and time to relax and recover. You and your child both deserve healing.
• University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Department of Pediatrics, Healing After Trauma Skills: A Manual for Professionals, Teachers, and Families Working with Children After Trauma/Disaster
• Ricky Greenwald, Child Trauma Handbook: A Guide for Helping Trauma-Exposed Children and Adolescents
Author: R.L. Stollar
R.L. Stollar is the Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.