Kids who have experienced trauma – adoption, foster care, neglect, abuse, significant loss – often have unique needs. Traditional parenting approaches don’t always work, requiring some creative, out-of-the-box thinking.

Here is one such out-of-the-box idea: let the lives of wild animals help you out.

The lives of wild animals (and plants) are full of fascinating and interesting behaviors and natural history facts. Exploring and discussing these with your child, through the lens of trauma, can allow both of you to discuss a variety of difficult topics, such as attachment, safety, and trauma, from a safer emotional distance than direct conversation.

Children who have experienced trauma often find face-to-face, direct conversations to be too intense, too threatening, and too difficult. Approaching conversations in a side-by-side, casual way can help calm the anxiety and emotional dysregulation your child may feel.

So how does this work?

Balcones National Widlife Refuge

Balcones National Widlife Refuge

Ideally, head outside to a park, hike-and-bike trail, bird observation blind, or nature center. Look for places that will maximize the likelihood of finding the animals or plants which, when spotted, can help you start the conversation. Areas near water can be good, as well as areas where one habitat blends into another (e.g., a field blending into a forest).

But you don’t have to necessarily get outdoors to try this out. Books, television shows about nature, nature/animal magazines, or simply talking about a particular animal will work, too, to get a good discussion going.

Here are a couple of examples to get you started:

If you want to discuss the basics of trauma and trauma-related behaviors:

Think of animals that tend to be naturally hypervigilant, watchful, or skittish, such as small birds, rabbits, deer, lizards, or squirrels. These are typically animals that must constantly scan for potential danger and have likely had many close calls with predators in the past. You may notice they can be “jumpy” and easily startled. Watch an animal like this with your child, and discuss their behaviors as a way to talk about some of the effects of living through a frightening, overwhelming experience like trauma, such as hypervigilance, difficulty trusting others, wariness, and avoidance.

If you want to discuss themes of safety and protection:

Animals and plants defend and protect themselves in a wide variety of ways. Examples of the fight-flight-freeze adrenaline response that occurs during times of perceived or actual threat can be found throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. For instance, most animals will flee if given the chance to escape safely. Some animals, like bears, lions, and wolves will also fight vigorously when threatened. Other animals may freeze to maximize their safety and survival, such as opossums and hognose snakes. Similarly, many animals remain very still when threatened, relying on camouflage to hide and keep themselves safe.

Cacti and Ocotillo at Big Bend National Park

Cacti and Ocotillo at Big Bend National Park

Alternatively, discussing specific ways plants and animals protect themselves can be a wonderful way to help a child
process feelings of safety and protection. The examples are numerous: porcupines have quills, skunks spray,
monarch butterflies are poisonous, cacti have thorns, octopi squirt inky liquid, hummingbirds fly very fast, mother Mexican free-tailed bats roost in caves with ammonia levels lethal to most potential predators, trees secrete chemicals to deter or kill insects that would harm them, and so on.

What are the side benefits to being outside?

Just to name a few: helps with nervous system regulation, improvement of mood, lessening of depressed or anxious feelings, containment of intense feelings, helps regulate cortisol levels (which are associated with stress), helps lower blood pressure and heart rate, and helps boost immune system. One research study even found spending time in nature may have a preventative effect on development of cancer.

When the waters are muddy and the answers unclear

Nature provides a vast world full of examples and metaphors which help provide clarity, depth, richness, and meaning to otherwise complicated and hard-to-make-sense-of life experiences, such childhood trauma, which often have few obvious or clear answers.