Helping Children Cope with Trauma
Whether a personal trauma or a national tragedy, like we have recently endured, our children suffer. Whether in overt misbehaviors or in quiet reticence, we can help children cope so they do not feel alone. While we cannot shield children’s innocence, we can help them feel safe.
Some symptoms of trauma are immediate and other symptoms may not show themselves at all for months or years. Because we care for our children, the task before us is to watch for symptoms, and choose an appropriate response. Our responses may be verbal, but more often our assistance can be nonverbal and supportive.
A Classic Case of Trauma
I arrived early at school to organize my materials for the day. My classroom was across the hall from the school gymnasium. I went in to say hello to some students who were routinely dropped off when the parents went to work. The gymnasium was always open for these students, and the television was left on so they could eat their breakfast and entertain themselves under the eye of an instructional aide.
That morning, the news on the Gulf War loudly blared off the hollow walls as it had for the past several mornings. I observed one of my seven-year-old students. His eyes were glassy. He was holding a piece of toast, but he wasn’t eating. He was staring at the television blankly. This went on for several minutes until I asked him to come speak with me.
He said that his stomach and his head hurt. He wanted to go home, but knew he had to stay at school because his Mom was working. The circles under his eyes bespoke his lack of sleep. As we talked more about school, he said he flunked his spelling test, and couldn’t do his homework any more. I said, “Tell me more.”
Given permission to speak about his problem, phrases tumbled out in disorder, and he kept talking for fifteen minutes. Finally he said his Dad was shipped off to the Gulf War. I realized he had been listening to endless war stories for several mornings, and probably all afternoon and evening at his house. He finally shared his innermost secret: that he didn’t want to sleep at night because he dreamed that his father died. And the dream repeated itself night after night, so he cleverly devised ways to stay awake. The television stories haunted his dreams and courted fantasies of personal loss.
This student is a classic example of traumatized children, gone unnoticed by a traumatized family, teachers, and others. During such times, children will feel great fear that plays itself out in wild imaginings and psychosomatic symptoms.
Children may feel that they will be separated from loved ones. Another common fear is that someone close to them will die. Then there is the expectation that such an event will happen again, without warning, shaking the very foundations of a child’s world and those around him on whom he depends for support. The expectation of a recurring event can turn into anticipation. Then imaginary scenarios can help children play out various coping roles. If children find no way to cope or to rehearse solutions in their minds, then helplessness, the deadliest emotion in its affect on our mental and physical health can settle in.
Look for These Symptoms
Physical symptoms: Children most commonly experience stomachaches and headaches. Anxiety symptoms like heart palpitations or sweating can occur.
When I walk my dog in the mornings, she is hyper vigilant, watching for a quail or a rabbit and always turning over her shoulder to check things out. Our children’s animal nature for survival causes them to be hyper vigilant, creating a chronic stress condition.
Sleeping and eating patterns may change, and breathing patterns become shallow, short, and labored under stress.
Stress weakens the immune system and cold symptoms, low-grade fevers, and low vitality indicate children have moved from stress to distress.
Emotional and Mental Symptoms: Children, like adults, will feel numbed out after trauma or tragedy. Without respite, numbness turns to dissociation, which is a normal coping strategy when things seem overwhelming. You’ll know if dissociation goes too far when children day dream, gaze into nothingness, stay glued to the television, seem mindless, or bury themselves in an activity for what seems longer than normal.
Other mental states like excessive worry or depression can easily follow distress and prolonged tension. Irritability, inability to concentrate, and forgetfulness are signs that the trauma is still impacting the mind and the body.
Look for aftershocks: As time goes on and your family life returns to normal, you may witness
These are normal. Children’s reactions to trauma become part of their emotional memories. A television show or scene, a harsh word, a piece of music, can trigger the memory and the stress symptoms recur.
What really matters is how an individual child reacts to stress. Some children rise to the challenges of life, while others are more sensitive and withdrawn. Overall, children are more susceptible than adults because their bodies and emotions are still developing. Their brain reacts differently to stress than a mature brain. A child’s body is not designed to endure a prolonged trauma or stress. And the old belief that children don’t feel pain and won’t remember is a falsehood. Every trauma and stress becomes an implicit memory in our nervous systems and cells.
First and foremost, a child’s needs are for two things: feeling safe and having a routine. Having a routine can be as simple as continuing to walk the dog or eating the same meal together. All of the suggestions listed below relieve stress in the body, help to prevent disease, and enable children to feel safe on the inside, when we can’t control the outside. Giving the child the ability to make a choice about their feelings restores some sense of control in an overwhelming world.
Here are some ways we can help children cope with trauma.
Deep, Abdominal Breathing: In times of high stress or trauma, breathing becomes shallow and restricted. Watch for shortness of breath, and shallow, high chest movements. This is the last thing you want to see in your children. Rather, breathe through the anxiety or tension, allowing the moment to pass so the body doesn’t become taut and stressed. At the International Breath Institute, a training organization in stress and health management, children are taught to use this first step in breath retraining.
Have the child lie down, with a pillow under his/her knees for comfort. Placing your hand on their abdomen, ask the child to inhale into his belly, blowing it up like a balloon. Then exhale, completely emptying the air out of the abdomen and lungs. Rest, and do this several more times until your child is comfortable with it.
Next, have your child place his own hand, with or without yours, on the abdomen and feel the process for him/herself. Practice it together so it is a mutual relaxation. For younger children, the hand on the abdomen provides a concrete anchor for showing them where to direct their breath.
Have your child sit up and try it again. This shows your child how to do it for himself. Discuss ways he can use this technique when he feels his stomach tighten in stress or anxiety.
Touch Can Relax: Research in healing children of abuse and trauma indicates that touching your children can help them feel safe and relax them at the same time. The younger the child, the more important the tangible contact of trustworthy person becomes.
While sitting next to each other, open the palm of your child’s hand and gently move in a circular motion.
Massage the point between thumb and index finger.
While talking with your child or standing next to them, rest your hand on the shoulder blade or at the back of the heart, between the shoulder blades. Many children hold tension in these spots from sitting too long, watching television or computers or from poor posture. During intense stress, tension builds in this part of the body.
Head massages along the temples and forehead before sleeping at night can help children release tension and worries.
Music: Different types of music help children both relax as well as release excess energy. For example, The Mozart Effect is designed to stimulate mental focus if a child needs to complete homework. The Cosmic Waltz offers relaxing music, yet affirming phrases to help children physically relax and be mentally alert. Divert tension with some evenly paced Latin dancing rhythms. Not that active? Hawaiian music is shown to relax the body and the mind. Lullabies of course can soothe some taut nerves.
Encourage expression: Break out the crayons, paints, and newsprint for emotional expression. Some children cannot express verbally the turmoil after trauma. By definition of trauma, the emotional numbness we feel has no words, and sometimes no identifiable feelings. Encourage children to draw, paint or color whatever they feel like. This exercise has no specific result like a picture that children have to tell you about. This is a silent way to express and to remove emotional tension.
Another way to move energy is to take a walk, preferably in a peaceful and quiet place. This stimulates the immune system in several ways. If nature is not available to you, sit in a rocking chair with younger children and play soft music. The act of rocking also releases tension and stimulates the immune system, not to mention the positive bonding shared through touch and breath.
Some tips about emotional support for children in trauma:
In trauma, one’s adrenaline pumps the heart, surges energy to the muscles, and shunts oxygen away from the brain. OF utmost importance is to handle the stress first. Traumatic shock can cause physical illness. This illness is the body’s way of shutting down so assimilation of the event and healing can take place.
Let silence be all right. The urge to “talk things out” may not be necessary if stress levels are so high that children cannot think. When words won’t come, touch – holding hands and hugs may keeps the contact solid.
If you are not available, children still need physical anchors of some sort. Stuffed animals, the favorite blanket, a family pet can feel this need.
Older children may need time to sort out thoughts and feelings – gift them with a private diary, and assure them their thoughts and feelings, no matter how angry or hurt, can be written down to relieve the pressure felt in the body.
When children are ready to talk, be ready to listen. Really hearing children means looking them in the eye, holding their hand, and not offering advice. Rather use phrases like: Tell me more. Explain more. Expand on that. What do you mean? Does your gut want to say something? Can I answer any of your concerns? Thank you for sharing. It helps me too!
Children may ask you the esoteric questions that have no answers, “Why did this happen? Will it happen again?” Answer with your heart, and if you have no answers, be honest enough to say you don’t know yet, and you could talk about it tomorrow. It is also all right to let children know that some actions of men can’t be explained. Sometimes it helps to let it be all right that there are no immediate answers.
A special thanks to Caron Goode for providing us with this very insightful tool.
Jeff M. Brown
President & CEO
© 2001 by Caron B. Goode, Ed.D
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Tucson, AZ 85715