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Vicarious Trauma: Recognize and Treat It So Children Can Heal

It’s easier than ever for children to access news about what’s happening around the world, making vicarious trauma an important issue for families. To learn about this type of trauma, including its signs and symptoms and how to treat it, we spoke to Dr. Rob Gent, Embark Behavioral Health vice president of clinical development and training. Gent, who has a doctorate in psychology, also shared advice for how to talk to your child about conflict and social issues in other countries. 

Defining Vicarious Trauma

What is vicarious trauma, and who is susceptible to it?

Vicarious trauma is a mental health condition that typically occurs when an individual who did not personally experience a trauma absorbs the stressful feelings of a directly traumatized person. After discussing the traumatic experience with the trauma survivor in depth, the individual experiences intensely empathetic feelings that can be so powerful that they integrate the survivor’s trauma into their own life.  

Those who are susceptible to it include therapists, counselors, doctors, lawyers, journalists, friends, family members, and other secondary witnesses to trauma. However, what many people may not realize is that children are also vulnerable to vicarious trauma when traumatizing events are covered in the media or shared on social media. Continually being exposed to threatening images, sounds, and messages can dramatically overstress a child and create vicarious trauma. 

What are the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma?

The symptoms of vicarious trauma are similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These symptoms include increased fear, increased hypervigilance, flashbacks, and invasive thoughts. Additionally, individuals may experience: 

  • Increased worry and anxiety about life.  
  • Increased isolation.  
  • Decreased motivation.  
  • Feelings of distress and depression that can be minimized by others, since the trauma did not happen to them directly. 

Treating and Reducing the Risk of Vicarious Trauma

What are the methods of treating vicarious trauma?

Treatment for vicarious trauma is similar to what’s used for PTSD, with professional help from a licensed mental health provider. The therapist and individual should establish a therapeutic alliance in which there’s agreement on treatment goals and tasks, and a bonding, trusting relationship develops between them.  

Treatment should include individual therapy with a focus on movement, exercise, mindfulness, and awareness practices, as well as emotional exploration and integration of the traumatizing circumstances.  

What are some self-care practices that can reduce the risk of vicarious trauma?

Self-care practices that can reduce the risk include:  

  • Scheduling time to be outdoors and get exposure to sunlight, which can release mood-boosting endorphins. 
  • Maintaining regular movement and exercise.  
  • Eating a nutritionally rich diet and avoiding sugars and processed foods.  
  • Spending time with empathetic individuals who can actively listen and express genuine care. 
  • Engaging in acts of service to stimulate empowerment, gratitude, and humility.

Talking About Conflict and Social Issues in Other Countries

Parents must first establish a foundation of emotional, physical, and relational security so their child feels safe and emotionally regulated with the parent. Through establishing close physical proximity, including safe touch like a reassuring hug, as well as through eye contact, empathy, and focused attention, the parent can be curious about what the child knows about world events. They can ask “What have you heard, seen, or viewed?” 

Parents should provide empathy for what those messages must feel like for the child. For example, they could say, “If I’m you, those things are incredibly scary, and it would make me anxious because … ”. They should avoid verbalizing “fixes” and giving platitudes like “You’ll be fine.” 

They should also assess how engaged and emotionally regulated their child is before providing more accurate information about the issue or trying to assure the child they’re safe in the environment where they live. If the child is becoming overwhelmed, crying, shutting down, or isolating, parents should refrain from more verbal engagement and provide their child with nurturance, safe touch, and empathy.  

What can parents do if their children are exposed to graphic details on social media?

Parents should follow the guidelines above, set limits on screen time and social media, and ensure phones are left to charge outside of rooms during bedtime to provide an environment most conducive to productive sleep. 

Vicarious Trauma: Wrapup

Vicarious trauma can have a significant impact on your child’s life, so it’s essential to recognize the signs and symptoms and seek professional help to treat the condition appropriately. It’s also important that you provide a safe and secure environment where your child can discuss their feelings, ask questions, and share their concerns.  

By seeking care when needed and providing a nurturing environment, you can help your child heal.

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.