Project HELP: PTSD—Helping Preschoolers with Family Trauma

Hurting family

Little 3-year-old David took my hand as we looked out the window, watching and listening as an ambulance drove by the day-care center. He said in a quiet voice, just so I alone could hear, “I rode in that ambulance.” I had to choke back my own tears because I knew he remembered a terrible, violent incident that happened to him a few months before. That summer, he would wear a shirt when our child-care class played outside in the sprinkler because he did not want the other preschoolers to see the scars on his belly from stab wounds that almost killed him.

It was my first year out of college, and I taught a class of 3-year-olds in the day-care center. I did not have the knowledge or life experiences to know what to say or do for David, so I just loved him in the best ways I knew. Since that time, I have had opportunities to minister to preschoolers who have been through other traumas, such as family issues of divorce, suicide of a parent, and terminal illness of a family member. These were each life-changing events for the preschoolers and their families. Even an event such as a car wreck can be traumatizing to a preschooler. Each situation is different, but we can be of help to preschoolers who face trauma within their families. These are some things I learned along the way.

  • Pray for God’s guidance. Pray for God to lead and direct you to know how to minister to this preschooler and the family. Pray for the words to say when words are needed.
  • Realize the losses the trauma may have brought about for the preschooler. He may have lost things or people who are familiar. There may have been a change in the family’s living arrangements or in their financial status. For the preschooler, this may bring about a loss of security.
  • Look for changes in behavior. Has the preschooler become more aggressive, or has the opposite happened and she is more withdrawn? Has the preschooler reverted back to more babyish behavior such as thumb sucking or soiling himself? Be sensitive to the preschooler’s needs, and it might help to keep a change of clothes on hand for the preschooler.
  • A preschooler who has been through a family trauma may need reassurance that his parent will return. Assure the preschooler that you know where his loved one is at church by saying, “Your mom is down the hall in her Bible class. She will come for you when she is finished.”
  • Help preschoolers sort out their feelings through play. Preschoolers make sense of events through dramatic play with blocks, puppets, or in Homeliving. Give opportunities to draw, paint, or pound play dough. Some types of play can be soothing, such as water play.
  • Give more time for the preschooler to be close to you. Hold the child to read a book together or sit together to draw. This gives reassurance when you are near.
  • ŸRead the book Sometimes I Am Afraid (W148103, $8.99) to help preschoolers discuss their own fears. Use the Bible thoughts in the book to remind them that God is with them. Read Always Remember to Pray (W168103, $8.99) in guiding preschoolers to know that we can talk to God at any time.

When preschoolers in your care go through trauma, the greatest thing you can do is love them. David Crosby wrote in Your Pain Is Changing You (N144119, $14.99), “Love is the greatest response of all to the suffering and heartache in the world and in our lives. Giving and receiving love helps heal the hurts that life delivers to our bodies and our spirits.”1 As you pray for preschoolers and their families, ask God to bring healing to their hurt through the love that you give.

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1 David Crosby, Your Pain Is Changing You (Birmingham, AL: New Hope Publishers, 2014), 168.

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