One of the main goals of raising children is to help them grow and thrive so they can live up to their full potential. Most parents expect that they can protect their children from danger (whether it’s man-made or natural disasters) and when they’re not able to, it can cause distress and feelings of helplessness. Although many children experience stress from time to time, a traumatic stressor is an intense event that threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional and physical well-being, such as being the victim of violence, physical or sexual abuse, serious injury, witnessing domestic violence or other serious events. About one of every four children will experience a traumatic event before the age of 16, putting them at risk for psychological and physical problems, both in the short term and the long term. Some of these symptoms can include depression, anxiety, disruptive behavior, shame and guilt, difficulty paying attention, nightmares, difficulty sleeping and eating, and other aches and pains. Some children will develop symptoms that can diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although traumatic events are all too common, the good news is that not every child who experiences trauma will develop psychological or physiological symptoms or be diagnosed with PTSD. Children are very resilient and whether a child does have lingering negative effects depends on several things, including how we as parents, teachers, and other community members respond and help support children at home and at school. Here are several ways that we all can be involved to help support children who have experienced a traumatic event.
— Parents should encourage children to express fears, sadness and anger and let them know that what they are feeling is normal. Helping children to talk about their feelings about the event can help them to not feel alone. Adults often worry about retraumatizing children if they talk about the event but allowing children to talk about their emotions in most cases makes children more likely to feel less scared and alone.
— Provide reassurance to children that they are safe once the traumatic event is over.
— Provide structure and routine in daily activities. Children do better when life is predictable and stable, something that may have been disrupted by the traumatic event. The more quickly home and school go back to their usual routine, the easier it will be for children to adjust.
— Be tolerant of an increase in disruptive behavior but also provide positive rewards and consequences for misbehavior. While it may be tempting to allow children to act out, it is important to provide structure to support children learning how to express their emotions in a productive and non-harmful way. This is especially challenging in situations where the traumatic event is not something that other members of the community may be aware of, such as a teacher. Parents may not want to tell a teacher about a stressful event that happened to a child out of concern for privacy but communication with school is key to the success for all children, but especially when children experience traumatic events. Communicating with a child’s school will allow school staff to help support the child by taking steps such as implementing a behavioral plan in the classroom if the child is having a difficult time with behavior or attention or referring the child to a school counselor to allow that child the opportunity to express the difficult emotions they may be feeling in a safe environment.
It’s important to recognize that even if schools and families use all these tips, there are situations where symptoms become worse or unmanageable without professional help. Fortunately, there are effective, evidence-based treatments for both children and families to help with the psychological impacts of trauma and families are encouraged to seek them out.
Dr. Erika K. Coles is a licensed psychologist who works for Health West in the school-based mental health program at Jefferson Elementary and Indian Hills Elementary.