My child was hospitalized following a dog bite. Should we handle her differently when she comes home?
MOLLY: This came from a reader based outside of Denver, Colorado. She added that she wasn’t sure what to do because her eight-year old daughter wasn’t showing much emotion after she came home from the hospital. She also wondered if they should have brought their younger daughter with them to the emergency room at the time of the attack?
DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD (Molly’s Mom): A psychologist friend of mine had a similar experience and she brought the child some “pretty tissues to have when she felt like crying.”
I think she did a really helpful thing for this child because we want that child to be able to talk about the trauma and to feel the trauma rather than to stuff it down where it will ooze out later in different behaviors that seem unrelated to this trauma. It then becomes very hard to treat.
This mom will want to talk directly about the trauma with the child as close to the event as possible. It should not be treated as a secret or in any way shameful.
MOLLY: What if the child won’t talk about it?
DR. RUTHERFORD: She may not talk about it right away, but she might cry about it. And the best thing to do is to allow for this and support the child.
Ask questions like “How are you feeling about what happened?”, “Do you feel scared that it will happen again?”, and “How are you feeling about dogs now?
Also, the parents will want to watch for any kind of behavior that might be related to the trauma. Is the child having any trouble sleeping? Is she having nightmares? Is she avoiding having contact with other people or with animals?
The other thing to watch for is an increased amount of separation anxiety from the parents. How the parents handle this should be geared to how the child is behaving and they should keep an eye out.
MOLLY: If she is showing some of these signs of traumatic behavior, what should the parents do?
DR. RUTHERFORD: One of the things they can do is to expose her to a calm, very friendly dog and be with her while she pets the dog. She should always have someone around with her when she’s near a dog to help keep the anxiety down. The dog should be kept under control at all times.
This desensitization technique is like getting back on a horse after you’ve been thrown: if you do it soon afterward then you can move forward and continue riding horses without fear. If you never get back on a horse, the trauma becomes magnified in memory.
MOLLY: They also asked if they should have brought the younger sister to the emergency room?
DR. RUTHERFORD: It depends on how old the other child was. I think it’s okay to do if that’s what the parents want to do and they think the child can handle it. Otherwise, they could leave the younger child with a trusted caregiver.
MOLLY: Those visuals that you may get from being in an emergency room can be pretty strong though.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, she might be exposed to other traumatic images in the emergency room, but being there also might help her feel more empathic towards her sister. It really depends on how old the other child is. If the child is only four-years old, for example, I would not take the child to the hospital.
MOLLY: What happens if the parents don’t deal directly with this trauma and the child never talks about the incident?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Well, when you don’t talk about an event and process it, it really never goes away; it stays in the unconscious. Then the buried feelings spill out at various times in different circumstances, even though she might not be remembering the incident with the dog and connecting the dots.
Traumatic memories impact us no matter what: the problems arise if we don’t talk about it when it happens because it’s much harder to tame those feelings later on when they become deeply ingrained. For instance, this child might become more phobic of life in general after this incident and continue along this path through adulthood, just because of a single event in childhood.
MOLLY: Scared not just of dogs but of other things as well?
DR. RUTHERFORD: It might magnify to include all animals. Or it might manifest as not wanting to sleep away from home, or not wanting to leave home at eighteen to go to school, or not wanting to move out as a young adult.
It’s hard to predict how buried trauma will manifest in an adult, but it always comes out in some way that interferes with a normal life and relationships. Best to address it directly in the moment and not let a childhood trauma take on a life of its own.