THE BLOG

How to Help a Child Recover From Child Abduction Trauma

05/17/2013 08:55 am ET | Updated Jul 17, 2013
  • Dr. Gail Gross Human Behavior, Parenting, and Education Expert, Speaker, Author. Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed.
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An abduction victim's recovery is largely dependent on the relationship with their primary caretakers. Children take their lead from their parents, and if their parents cope in a positive way with an impossible situation, then their children will feel that they can recover and move forward as well. Therefore, it is very important for parents to know their children and know their children's history.

Children react to trauma in proportion to their past traumas. If they have a strong family of origin, are well-bonded and have not experienced trauma before the abduction, they are more likely to have a positive outcome. Children who have been traumatized by illness, abuse or discordant households, on the other hand, will have a more difficult time.

Listening empathically to children after a trauma, without judgment, is one of the greatest tools parents have. Through listening to their children, parents are letting them know that they are still valued and validated, regardless of what damage they may have experienced. Furthermore, by letting children express their feelings, parents give them a chance to grieve. This requires tremendous courage and composure on the part of parents, who are themselves grieving.

While listening, it is constructive to both confirm and validate what your children have been through and how they feel about it. On the other hand, never burden your children with how you feel about the trauma that they have experienced.

It is also important not to burden your children with the emotional reactions of others. If a parent or primary caretaker tells a child that everything will be all right, then he or she will believe that everything will be all right. Children take their cues from the adults around them.

Abduction and the abuse that comes from holding someone against their will may cause post-traumatic stress in victims. The insecurity that accompanies such trauma can be devastating, as children are removed from the safe and intimate world they know. Children that have been held captive in what can only be referred to as a prison mindset may now experience regressive behaviors such as insecurity, fear, hypersensitivity, sleep disorders, depression, free-floating anxiety and a heightened sense of death and destruction. Thus, helping children re-enter their families of origin can be quite difficult, and may take a considerable amount of outside counseling and time.

Parents and primary caretakers can help their children by creating a structure in which to re-establish a sense of sameness and routine. This will allow their children to, once again, feel secure.

Parents should not press their children for the details of their ordeal, but rather allow such information to unfold. Art therapy, talk therapy, music therapy and role-playing are all helpful ways for children to express the unthinkable. When words fail or cannot be used, these approaches can help children tell their painful story.

Younger children can use dolls in order to role-play what they have experienced. Art therapy, including drawing and painting, is also a way in which children can convey the unthinkable: their feelings of such terror, that words cannot lend voice to them. Outside counseling offers the proper container for such activities, to help guide parents and children through this emotional minefield.

This is the time to truly parent, compassionately and empathically. Encourage children to talk about their feelings, without pressuring them, which can only cause more anxiety and trauma. Observe your children and, with young children, observe their play. This is where they can freely act out their feelings, without attention or reprisal. Pay attention to their artwork and their schoolwork, and look for any signs of change. For all practical purposes, abducted children are going through post-traumatic stress disorder. Therefore, the main role that a parent has at this time is to re-establish a sense of balance, peace, calm, and security.

Make sure that you tell your children how much you love them, and how grateful you are that they are home, alive and safe. Impress upon them that there is nothing that they could have done or can ever do to make them lose your love. Explain that they were captives and it is not their fault; that they were just children and an adult took their freedom away. Then, most importantly, reassure your children that what happened to them does not define them; that what happened to them is not who they are; that they can move on with their lives. Reassure them that though some of their life was in captivity, the rest of their life will be free, and that though someone took away some of their life, they will not allow them to take anymore. Make sure that young survivors know that this is what they are: survivors. Be sure they receive professional support and counseling.

Don't allow your children to comfort you; you are the adult. For feelings of self-blame, doubt, or depression, parents should seek their own, separate professional help. Group therapy or support groups can offer invaluable assistance to parents. Adults need to garner their support and reassurance from other adults -- not to have a role-reversal with their children.

In the final analysis, the way back from the shadow is through the light. There is an ancient Jewish proverb, that when the heart is broken, it can mend -- though there will always be a scar. It is from this wound that we can offer empathy and compassion to others.