“Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too can be given to one only by other human beings”.
-Elie Wiesel, A Holocaust Survivor
I love this quote because it signifies the importance of fellowship and community with one another when it feels like to the world is falling in on us. Traumatic experiences can occur to any out at any age in any place or time. Specifically for children, traumatic experiences can drastically change the neural pathways within their brain, that become cemented into who they are as they grow into adults. So then, what is trauma?
A traumatic experience is…
- An event that exposes an individual to threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation
- Could be an event that happens to a close family member, friend, or loved one
- Produces intense physical effects such as pounding heart, rapid breathing, trembling, dizziness, or loss of bladder or bowel movement
There are different types of trauma, one known as acute trauma. This is an single traumatic event that happens for a limited time. Examples include:
- Car accident
- Bitten by a dog
- Crime or gang violence
- Natural disaster
- Single incident of physical or sexual assault
The other type of trauma is known as chronic trauma. This happens when individuals are exposed to traumatic events repeatedly over long along period of time.
- Domestic violence
- Witnessing abuse of a parent or other member within the household
- Community violence
- Neglect, starvation, or depravation
Many individuals may have heard of something called complex trauma, or C-PTSD, complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Typically C-PTSD occurs when a child has experienced multiple and re-occurring traumatic events from a very young age. This may be caused by adults who should’ve been taking care of and protecting the child, yet instead abuse or neglect them.
The way in which children specifically respond to trauma can vary, yet the long-term impact of these events can drastically interfere with a child’s development relationally, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Some of these elements include:
- Ability to trust others
- Sense of personal safety
- Ability to manage emotions
- Ability to navigate and adjust to life’s changes
- Physical and emotional responses to stress
Additionally, the way in which a child reacts to trauma will vary on many things including:
- Chronological age
- Developmental age
- Perception of the danger faced
- Trauma history
- Adversities faced following the trauma
- Availability of adults who can offer help, reassurance, and protection
Children who experience traumatic events may react in varying ways including through physiological arousal levels and reactivity, which includes:
- High alert for danger
- Quickness to startle
- Irritiability or anger
- Reckless and self-destructive behavior
- Sleep or concentration problems
- More intense or frequent temper tantrums
Other factors that may attribute to disruption within a child’s life include instructions within daily life such as images, sensations and dreams or of the event in and of itself. In younger children, they may re-enact the intrusive memory and trauma through play. Furthermore, children may experience or demonstrate avoidance symptoms where they attempt to not think about the traumatic event, or avoid places, people and things that remind them of the memory.
Some other symptoms that may occur include changes in thought or mood which result in…
- Trouble remembering
- Taking a step back or pulling away from relationships or playful encounters
- Continual spiral of negative thoughts and feelings
- Blaming themselves for what happened
While playing, children may re-enact the traumatic experience they have encountered through some of the following behaviors:
- Repeating parts of the event
- Taking on the role of the abuser
- Attempting to re-write the story by trying a different end outcome
- Get stuck on a particular moment or event
Although these signs are important to know when or if you work with children in any capacity, remembering that there are key factors in the resiliency of children is very important. What even is resiliency?
The ability and process of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences or traumatic events.
What are some factors that increase resilience?
- Strong relationship with at least one competent adult
- Feeling connected to a positive role model or menor
- Having your talents nurtured and appriecated
- Feeling some control over one’s own life
- Having a sense of belonging to a community, group, or cause larger than oneself
With this being said, it is so important that other individuals within a families life intervene to help the family out when a tragedy or traumatic event has occurred. There are many ways to promote safety in and outside of the home to help increase resilience and the likelihood of recovery. Here are just a few of those ideas:
- Give children control of some aspects their lives (ie: we have water to drink, would you like it cold, with ice or no ice, or straight from the tap?)
- Set limits
- Let children know what the plan is and what will happen next
- See and appreciate them for who they are
- Help maintain a sense of connection and continuity with the past
All in all, children, teenagers, and adults go through traumatic experiences throughout life. Understanding how and when a traumatic event impacted a child from a young age, can help everyone who engages with children on any level recognize signs and symptoms as well as ways to create a safe atmosphere for the child. Through the help of other adults, counselors, mentors, and family members children can be resilient in the face of traumatic experiences.
Reference: A good portion of this material is derived from the Resource Parent Curriculum, which you can find online at the The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
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