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Understanding trauma in children

March 1, 2019

Categories: Blog

Published: March 1, 2019

Training adults cannot prevent children from experiencing trauma, but it can provide them strategies to reduce its negative impact. The following is a modified version of Dr. Marilyn Davis’, Psy.D., adjunct faculty at Pacific Oaks and assistant professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, dissertation on this subject. You can find the full version of her work here.

Each year in the U.S., 5 million children are exposed to a traumatic event. Both a child’s stage of development and the traumatic event itself determine how they experience trauma.

Positive and negative experiences during children’s developmental years impact their identity formation. Most children experiencing distress develop resilience through different protective factors such as:

  • Resourcefulness
  • Group cohesion
  • A sense of invulnerability
  • Rebelliousness
  • A willingness to take risk

However, resilience-building is still more challenging for traumatized children. Some are unable to build protective factors (such as resilience) because of the underlying impact of trauma.

Children can have a myriad of emotions and behaviors related to the trauma event or accumulated (complex) traumas. Because children are traumatized in a variety of ways (e.g., directly, indirectly, through loss of loved one, by proximity to a tragic event, by loved ones, etc.) and at various stages of development, there is not an age or grade-level model of a traumatized child.


How do children process a traumatic event

One only needs to think about recent school shootings or tragic natural disasters to know that children and youth are not exempt from being exposed to a traumatic event.

When a school-age child experiences a school shooting, it may become an existential traumatic experience for them. Not only are they working through the terror of the experience (which may include the death of a classmate) because of a developed theory of mind, they must also consider the possibility of their own deaths in a similar manner. This is why schools should offer multiple opportunities to socialize in structured groups to help build children and youth’s social competence throughout the school year. The improvement of children’s and youth’s well-being could be measured in terms of how children and youth function individually, within interpersonal relationships, and within the social context.


Best practices when dealing with traumatized children

After a natural disaster or other tragedy, recommended intervention techniques with a child should look no different from how one might intervene if a child is traumatized by maltreatment or abuse. What we say, and how we say it, is very important in resilience building.

Psychological First Aid (PFA) is an evidence-informed, flexible intervention to assist survivors and responders immediately after an overwhelming traumatic experience or disaster. PFA has clinical utility in schools to help reduce the distress of children after social and emotional events.

Traumatized children and youth are not typically acting in a certain way just to irritate their teacher or caregiver. More likely, negative behaviors are an attempt to communicate distress, and if traumatized, an attempt to continue surviving.

Children ought to be seen and heard. If an adult responds harshly, a child or youth is likely to internalize that to mean they are bad or the child may be reactive and respond in the exact same way. In addressing a traumatized child or youth, it is important to realize that although the trauma event or disaster might be over, change and trauma reminders could keep the events in mind.

The words used to help are equally important. See below for some recommendations on how to choose your words during different circumstances.


What You Might Say Infographic_EDIT-02

Benefits of self-compassion

When children, in general, cannot integrate their experiences with that of others, they may display egocentric tendencies (over-dramatizing their personal problems), be even harder on themselves, or feel isolated. Research has found that increased positive self-talk and increased self-compassion can help with this. This research also found that self-compassion has the following three major components:

  1. Self-kindness: the ability to treat oneself with care and understanding rather than with self-judgment.
  2. A sense of common humanity: the ability to recognize that imperfection is a shared aspect of the human experience, rather than feeling isolated by one’s failures.
  3. Mindfulness: the ability to hold one’s present-moment experience from a balanced perspective, rather than exaggerating the dramatic storyline of one’s suffering.

The research shows that self-compassion is correlated with stable feelings of self-worth over time. Children can modulate the effect through positive relationships with others, through attunement, interactive resonance, and mutual synchronization. Students with higher levels of self-compassion were found to be better able to mediate interpersonal conflict through compromise and consideration of others’ perspectives. In turn, these students instilled a global sense of calm and cooperation within the classroom environment.

Traumatized youth latch onto calmness. It enhances their feeling of security. Furthermore, when school environments become places that emphasize kindness, respect of others, inclusiveness, and a sense of belonging, such environments may be able to mitigate the effects of bullying and isolation over time.


Putting theory into practice

It is not only important what is done to help these children, but also how it is done.

Calling an abusive parent when a child acts out may result in further harm and traumatization of that child. Using thoughtful words, creating a safe environment, and connecting with the distressed child in the classroom are strategies teachers and immediate caregivers can employ to help the child to self-regulate.

For example, a kindergartener’s brain is not fully developed and he or she functions from the limbic, or more primitive, part of the brain. When he or she is distressed, touch, communal singing, humming, and holding hands will work to calm naturally impulsive and anxious behaviors and feelings. At the other extreme, a youth (age 13-19) who has full executive function of the brain, may simply need help tolerating intense distressful feelings.

Traumatized children often use avoidance and dissociation to decrease feelings that come from engagement with others, appearing as if they are compliant (e.g. quietly sitting in the classroom). Embracing culture change by creating a trauma-sensitive classroom environment might be a helpful intervention that teachers can employ in the classroom.


Be mindful of vicarious trauma

No one caring for a trauma victim is immune from vicarious trauma. Training cannot shield teachers and caregivers from the effects of vicarious trauma, but it does provide strategies to reduce its impact. Teachers can minimize the effects of vicarious trauma by seeking out their own self-care.

Referral is a lifeline, so referring a child or youth to a mental health professional in a timely manner is essential not only for a child’s well-being but for the teacher’s well-being as well. Another positive way to promote self-care is to establish a healthy and supportive network, which will serve as a protective shield.


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Categories: Blog

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