Preparing and Healing from Childhood Trauma
This last week has made most of us stop and re-evaluate our lives. Are we as safe as we thought we were? Could it happen where I live? What is happening to the world? The first school shooting actually happened in Springfield OR, not Columbine. My husband remembers since he grew up here in Oregon. I remember Columbine, as I was in high school at the time. I remember thinking “What would I do if it were my school? My friends? My family?” This week hits home just like it did then, only now the questions are suddenly more potent. It did happen here. The Clackamas Town Center Mall, where the mall shooting occurred, is our local mall. I’ve taken my kids there, my husband and I frequent the book store and movie theater for dates, and our Jr High choir was there just a few hours before. For the first time, it has happened here, where I live. Follow that with the CT shooting, in a town similar to mine, and my paradigm shifts. This world is getting crazier and chaos seems to be looming, and although statistically these events are still very rare, the likely hood that our children will experience trauma directly or indirectly, man-made or natural, is ever increasing. So the question I’ve been pondering this weekend is how do I prepare my children for trauma and help them heal afterwards?
Can You Really Prepare for Trauma?
Most of our posts cover what to DO to prepare, all the physical preparations that enable survival. Trauma is different, you can’t pack a 72 hour kit for your soul, or put a band aid on the broken heart. However there are things that we can do to help our kids deal with trauma when it happens. Let me clarify what I mean by trauma – anything traumatizing. It could be news coverage like this weekend’s shooting, it could be bullying, it could be natural disasters, it could be crime, it could be war – like I said traumatic events seem to be on the rise.
Why Prepare for Childhood Trauma?
The first preparation is always education. Trauma caused by people are possibly going to cause more harm emotionally than a natural disaster. In the case of natural disasters we can educate our kids about their scientific causes and results. Its logical and non-personal. Man-made disasters are complex, violent, senseless, and sickening. How do you explain the evil that must envelope a person for them to do these things? Do you even try?
1) Be honest – This person had issues and didn’t know how to get help. They are not normal and they were not good people. For a child that’s better than explaining mental illness, laws, and motives. Keep it simple, that is how they see the world. If your children are older, ask what they know and understand. Now is the time to discuss events, not after they’ve happened to you personally. Once you know where they are coming from and what their questions are, you can better explain things, and correct misinformation and fear.
2) Remember people are still good – as adults we tend to see the glass half empty especially after these kind of events. Kids have not lost their optimism, so don’t steal it telling them the world is evil and full of horrible people and events. There is a fabulous Berenstain bears book (I love their books for teaching concepts to my kids) called The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers. It has a great explanation for how the world is still a great place and full of great people, but there are a few “bad apples” and that’s why we have to be cautious. I highly recommend reading this book with your kids. Teach them now to recognize good people and to see the good in the world. The bad sticks out like a sore thumb, cultivate a positive outlook by seeing the “helpers,” the examples and heroes around them.
3) It’s not their fault – Whenever something bad happens human nature seems to insist “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” We turn the blame on ourselves, and sometimes God. Now is the time to address that tendency and create a habit of looking the other direction. Yes there are some bad things that we bring upon our shelves and that’s when this question is necessary, but in situations of man-made trauma, this will only create larger problems and complicate healing. Growing up, my best friend was bullied through sexual harassment and in the same year sexual assaulted by a total stranger. I watched firsthand what childhood trauma and PTSD does to a person and the LONG road to recovery. The hardest thing to heal was blame, blaming herself. Now is the time to explain to your kids that when bad people make bad choices and do bad things to children and other innocent people, it is no one else’s fault but theirs. Help them to recognize the choices of others, verses their own, now through regular experiences so that when they are the victim they have the confidence to say “It wasn’t my fault.”
What more can I do?
I have thought a great deal about this question. Having a conversation with my kids seems so minor compared to the problem. There must be something I can do. There is but it’s not really what you would expect. Its relatively simply and yet in the rush of today’s’ world its difficult. Make your home and family a sanctuary. If there is a safe haven for our kids and their friends to go in time of distress they will have the built in support system they need to combat the trauma. How do we create this environment in our homes, while still keeping up with world and its demands?
- Let go of some of the world – events like these should make us ponder what’s really important in life. Those answers and the desire you’ve had to hug and cuddle your kids, have dinner as a family, and play together should be what you move to the top of the to do list. Stop and ask yourself what keeps me from doing these things everyday and then get rid of them. Too many extracurricular activities, video games, lack of a consistent schedule – whatever it is, fix it and fit these things in. The most vital ingredients for recovery after trauma are the activities that built self-esteem, good mental health, and a strong relationship. Don’t wait until something happens to start – start now.
- Build a strong family bond – talk with your kids and spend time together as a family. Include friends and extended family. This is the support network that your children rely on when life throws lemons at them. Your teenager is not suddenly going to open up about the bullying at school, or the fears they have if they’ve never discussed more than their grades and meaningless daily events with you. Start now to build a trusting relationship, where your kids feel comfortable talking to you about personal subjects and feel safe with how you’ll respond.
- Set family traditions – sounds cheesy but these strengthen bonds and give life added depth. They are especially meaningful in times of trial. They are a source of comfort and consistency when life turns sideways. However if you don’t have them now, there is nothing to fall back on. Christmas is a great time of year to begin. Don’t just focus on seasonal traditions, but daily traditions. Simple things like eating dinner together as a family, bed time stories, and a hug before school are daily traditions that strengthen our children and build a reference for daily life.
- Help them see themselves as a force for good in the world, to act and not be acted upon – just as its important to help them see that they can choose good, that they can help others choose good. Help them to have the courage to stand up for what is right, to encourage and lead the way for those struggling to make positive choices in life. To uplift those who are down, befriend those that are friendless, and to stand up for the oppressed.
How can I help my children now?
Our kids aren’t sheltered and I’m sure that many around the country are scared to go to school today, or to the mall or maybe even just outside their door. Trauma can come by just watching the news. Kids don’t always recognize when or where events happen and personalize what they see on TV. So how can you help them now and strengthen them for later.
1) Monitor the media – turn it off is even better. Repeated exposure is not good for them and younger kids will mistake it for happening again. Besides the news is for adults and does not give age appropriate explanations. This is your job.
2) Talk about it – silence makes things scarier. Find out what they know, correct misinformation, and talk about their fears and how they are being addressed. Don’t undermine their fears, lie, or focus on what should have happened or should be done.
3) Increase affection and support – luckily this is our natural instinct as parents. The physical comfort of hugging your children is more therapeutic than we know. Quality time also speaks volumes to a child.
4) Let them get involved – feeling empowered to help or cause change is important. There are many ways that children can be involved to help those effected by trauma and disaster. Currently a friend of mine started Bear to Survive and is collecting teddy bears to send to the kids at Sandy Hook Elementary. This is a great opportunity to help our kids feel like they can help. The same goes with writing letters to the families affected. Simply choosing to perform an act of service in their memory is amazingly effective. Older kids may wanted to start a campaign to reduce bullying or increase school safety. These are healing and productive ways to empower, prepare, and heal.
Hopefully none of our children will be victims for trauma in any of its forms, but as the world seems to spiral out of control and seemingly shrink in size, trauma will come closer and closer to home. We pray for those effected and we pray that all will be protected. Prayer is not enough, we must act and prepare so that we can be survivors and not victims.
For more information on how to help your children after a traumatic event (man-made or natural) see the following resources:
http://www.trauma-pages.com/disaster.php This site contains almost all of the disaster-related links and materials available. Here, you’ll find mental health handouts as well as links to external disaster web sites, disaster mental health guides, and other informative materials useful in assisting disaster victims. Very impressive lists.
- http://www.trauma-pages.com/h/dissteps.php -Steps you can take to cope successfully in stressful situations
- http://www.trauma-pages.com/h/famcope.php – Family coping strategies
- http://www.trauma-pages.com/h/arcvic.php – Emotional Health Issues for Victims
http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/facts_for_families – Facts for Families search each sheet at the bottom of the site
- Helping children after a disaster
- Talking to children about terrorism and war (this one is great for man made events like what we’re dealing with currently)
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- The Depressed Child
- Children and Grief
My personal Blog on Children and Disasters, which will slowly become integrated with this site. http://kidsanddisasters.blogspot.com/#uds-search-results These are all the posts related to trauma and recovery from it.