Due to recent events in our country and local communities, I felt it was timely to summarize some of the information available about how children and teens respond to
trauma. After the recent school shootings, which are much too close to home, I received several questions from parents about what is a “normal” response from their children, how they can help their children to cope, and how they can protect their children from over-exposure. The following information gives parents and caregivers an idea of what to expect. It helps them to navigate the weeks and months following a traumatic event in the life of their child or in the greater community.
How Children Process Traumatic Events?
Children aged 13 and younger are constantly looking to their parents for feedback and direction. This is also true in the case of a trauma. Children look to their teachers and caregivers for direction on how to respond and for reassurance about their safety. Many children will initially continue their normal activities and may even ignore the traumatic event. This is a very normal response for younger children as they sort through their thoughts about the event. Other normal reactions from children include sleep disturbances, complaints of stomach or head pain, acting out the event in play, reverting back to previous developmental stages, and showing signs of irritability, sadness, or anger. It is always important to ask yourself where your child is getting information. Will peers be talking about the event at school? Is the news on at home? Are children present during adult conversations about traumatic events? Understanding your child’s viewpoint of the trauma will allow for a greater understanding when it comes to supporting them.
After being exposed to trauma or to information about a traumatic event, children may start to react to information that reminds them of the events, such as a location, pieces of clothing, time of day, or separation from a security figure. Whether your child is fixated on a traumatic event or does not seem to be impacted by it at all, creating a safe and reassuring environment will help to facilitate a smooth transition as they incorporate new information into their ideas about the world around them.
How Adolescents Deal with Trauma?
Teens are much more independent when it comes to processing and understanding trauma. From around the age of 13, teens begin to independently address and assess danger, along with the help of their peers. With increased independence from their families, teens are at increased risk of being exposed to traumatic situations, such as being, “passengers in horrible car accidents, victims of rape, dating violence and criminal assault, present during school or community violence, and experience the loss of friends under traumatic circumstances.” (APA, 2014) They are also beginning to process human motivation as they struggle over issues of irresponsibility and human accountability. Through access to a computer or cell phone, teens have overwhelming amounts of information available at their fingertips. Like children, teens may experience irritability, sadness, or even a regression in developmental levels. They may internalize the trauma as a potential risk for their lives and feel less secure in their school or community. Teens are also at risk of being over-exposed to information regarding traumatic events through the use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media outlets. As with children, you need to understand where your teens are getting their information on a daily basis.
Although resilient, adolescents are not immune to post-traumatic stress reactions. While children may not question their response to trauma, teens may interpret their reactions as signs that they are “‘going crazy,’ being weak, or being different from everyone else.” (APA, 2014) They may be embarrassed by their feelings of fear and aggression, and feel as though they are alone in their struggles. Feeling that their responses are unique can lead to isolation and feelings of depression because being similar and connected to peers is very important for teens. You should also be aware that some teens may try to mask their post-traumatic emotions by using drugs and alcohol, and their sleep disturbances may be hidden by late night studying or the use of technology.
How Can a Parent Respond to Trauma?
A parent or caregiver’s response in the aftermath of a trauma is critical. It is important to reassure children that the adults in their lives are doing everything they can to make their school, home, and neighborhood safe. It can be challenging for parents to support their children if they also endured the traumatic event and also need help or support. I always encourage parents to get their own support systems in place (friends, family, pastor, counselor), in addition to helping their children. Whether you are dealing with children, teens, or both, it is important to remain calm and avoid using your children as a source of support. After establishing a supportive system, it is crucial to return to a regular schedule. Routines can offer comfort and reassurance, and they remind one to care for basic needs in the midst of crisis. Finally, I encourage parents to recognize the feelings of their child or teen as normal and to help them find productive ways of expressing anger. They need to know that emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, confusion, and guilt are normal reactions to experiencing a trauma.
Christian Counseling Can Help You and Your Child Respond to Trauma
If you or your child have endured a past or present trauma and need some extra support, there are many wonderful professionals in your area who can offer a secure place to process and heal. Christian Counseling can be a great place to begin exploring how to move forward and incorporate your experiences in your life ahead. Reach out to me here to find out more about Christian counseling.
*Information adapted from: National Mental Health and Education Center”
APA. Talking to Your Children About the Recent Spat of School Shootings. (2014). http://www.apa.org/topics/violence/school-shooting.aspx
“Mourning the Passing of Pets,” courtesy of William Wootton, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Young Friends Forming a Circle,” by photostock, FreeDigitalPhotos,net, ID 10038164
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