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5 Tips for Communicating with Traumatized Youth

Communication is key. However, for kids who have experienced abuse and neglect, communication can be a very difficult task. Children may have a tough time identifying and expressing how they feel, or may misinterpret others’ words leading to frustration and defensiveness. As a parent, teacher, or provider for children and teens who have survived trauma, it is so important to learn and practice strategies to support healthy communication. Below are a few techniques that I have used throughout the years and find very effective in improving communication skills and helping children, and their parents, feel heard and understood.

  1. Listen for the emotion, not the content. Upset kids say all sorts of things and often have a hard time taking responsibility for themselves in the moment, blaming anyone and everyone for the issue at hand. Don’t get too focused on the content of their rants, and definitely try not to take it personally. Listen for the emotion you are hearing underneath it all. A simple “wow that sounds really frustrating” can go a long way. After he settles down you can have a more in depth conversation and push him to see others’ perspectives, take ownership for his behaviors, or engage in problem solving.

  2. Be aware of your body language. Traumatized kids are extremely sensitive to shifts in our body language and often misperceive them as signs of impending danger. Try not to stand too close and be super aware of your nonverbal communication. This means no crossed arms or annoyed facial expressions. Need to communicate with a child (even your own!) who really pushes your buttons? Try using a stress ball or fidget toy during a difficult interaction. Not only will this help keep you calm and in the moment, but it models that it’s okay to use therapeutic toys. My favorite is theraputty. You can check it out at amazon, here.

  3. Watch your tone. If I had a dollar for every time a teen told me that someone was an expletive because he or she had yelled at them, when come to find out that person had just slightly raised their voice, used sarcasm, or sounded annoyed- I’d be on my own private island right now. Ever heard the saying- it isn’t what you say but how you say it? For kids who have experienced extensive trauma, this is absolutely the case. You might be saying the kindest thing or giving positive feedback, but if your volume or tone sounds negative, your words will be lost.

  4. Check back. Communication is hard. For everyone. We misunderstand one another all the time. Ever have a conflict and then realize that no one was actually upset with the other person and it was all just a big misunderstanding? Happens with our kids ALL THE TIME. Every so often, check back in with your child to make sure you understood. It doesn’t have to sound all therapy like or forced, but just say, “Hey- I just want to make sure I understand. What I’m hearing you say is….” Then give her a chance to explain herself again if you misunderstood. In the long run, you’ll want her to also feel comfortable checking back to make sure she is understanding your message as well.

  5. Don’t power struggle. I cannot stress this one enough. Do not power struggle. You’ll never win. I promise. Some kids who have experienced trauma are extremely skilled at getting their needs met, and sometimes this is due to their relentless efforts to convince you to change the limit that was set by you or someone else. After doing this work for a long time, I still catch myself in a power struggle from time to time, but as soon as I notice, I get myself out of it. Easier said than done, but if you catch yourself in a back and forth with the child in your life, stop engaging in it. It is completely okay (and recommended!) to set whatever the expectation is and leave it. It’s okay if the youth keeps talking, or yelling. They probably will. Remain calm and remember the tips above. You can always revisit the topic later when the child is in a calmer, more rational state of mind.