How can we support dissociative children and young people?

In the run up to Christmas, FASD Hub South West thought it would be helpful to come away from the tinsel and to link with professionals where we aim to focus on some bitesize techniques to support trauma responses that we might see in schools, and at home, with children and young people.

Children and young people are usually not aware that they dissociate or ‘zone out’, and they cannot put into words what is happening. From their perspective, their experiences are the same as everyone else’s.

Dissociation leads to a range of behaviours which can often be misunderstood by adults as daydreaming, being a liar, or problems with concentration. In fact, dissociation is the child’s brain keeping them safe by momentarily removing them from perceived threats in their day-to-day life.

Beacon House says:

‘Dissociation is, in many ways, to be celebrated! When it was needed, it helped the child survive unbearable moments of pain and fear.’

Top tips for helping a child who has dissociated

Beacon House says:

‘Your main goal when helping a dissociated child is to ground the child back to the ‘here and now’ and help them to feel safe.’

You can do this in many different ways, here are a few ideas:

  • Use eye contact
  • Use a calm, low, slow voice
  • Use their name, remind them they are safe and where they are (“Sarah, you are at home, it’s me – mum”) Use gentle, simple grounding questions (“Sarah, can you tell me where you are? What is your name? How old are you?”)
  • Use gentle touch (such as placing your hand on their knee or their hand)
  • Use potent smell (lavender drops or spray on a favourite toy or pillow or in the air)
  • Turn on some music
  • Give them something to eat or chew, or something to drink, could also be an ice lolly as the cold also supports regulation
  • Get them moving; help them to stand up and walk around
  • Ask them questions about their surroundings (“Sarah, what can you see? what can you hear? what can you smell?)
  • Take them outside and walk on the grass – preferably in bare feet
  • If you have a pet, ask them to stroke it
  • Cuddle up on the sofa, watch a film together

For teens

A mobile phone can be the connective bridge between a dissociative moment (‘then and there’) and the present (the ‘here and now’). If your young person has a mobile and you know they have been triggered or are feeling vulnerable, send them regular grounding messages to help them stay present. For example…

  • Text me a photo of where you are sitting
  • Can you text me five things that are green around you
  • Text me back three things you can see
  • Name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. (If you want to find more about this one this is called the 54321 trauma grounding technique)
  • The 3-3-3 rule is another grounding technique aimed at reducing anxiety. In this method, you identify 3 things you can see, 3 things you can touch, and then take 3 deep breaths. While it’s less comprehensive than the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method, it serves a similar purpose—providing quick relief from acute anxiety by refocusing your attention on the present moment.
  • Take a short walk. Concentrate on your steps — you can even count them. Notice the rhythm of your footsteps and how it feels to put your foot on the ground and then lift it again.

Beacon House says:

‘Remember: The nervous system works in a sequence. Young people often move into fight/flight/freeze as they transition back to being fully present. If children young people start ‘fighting you away’ or ‘wanting to avoid’ what just happened…you are on the right path. If you can bring in playfulness, humour and laughter then you have turned on their social engagement system and they will be back in the room with you.’

Beacon House’s very helpful information sheet takes you through what dissociation is and how you can support this.