Returning to School after a Traumatic Event Part I

As long as humankind has existed, there have been traumas. It is how people respond to traumatic events that can make a significant difference in whether they recover with resiliency or remain permanently injured by their experiences. Young people are particularly vulnerable to the impact of trauma because of their development levels and the presence or absence of a solid support system in their lives. The right kind of support can make a dramatic difference, not only in how they cope with a traumatic event, but in their perspective going forward in life.

Student with a backpackBy definition, traumas are unexpected and sudden events that cause intense harm emotionally and, at times, even physically. A young person who experiences a traumatic incident feels a deep sense of helplessness and fear, at least at the onset of the event. Over time, however, how they process and react to the trauma and how they express the ongoing effects of their distress depends on many dynamics, including factors such as:

  • their age and level of development
  • the supports they have (or do not have) in their lives
  • their closeness (in proximity and/or relationship) to the event
  • other mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety
  • individual differences in temperament
  • prior traumatic experiences

These variables impact whether a young person grows and gets stronger or is challenged in his/her ability to recover.

Trauma comes in many forms

The school shootings in Chardon this past February brought our worst fears of trauma and violence involving our children to life; however, there are many types of traumatic events that touch the lives of children everywhere and every day. These include experiences such as:

  • witnessing or experiencing an unexpected death
  • the suicide of a close family member or significant loss of a loved one
  • domestic violence or abuse
  • involvement in a severe accident

Sadly, more children than we like to think are impacted by traumatic experiences. And because these events affect so many aspects of their functioning, returning to school following a traumatic experience can be very difficult.

The impact of trauma on children

When children do have an experience that overwhelms their ability to cope effectively, they may have ongoing feelings of concern for their safety and ability to trust others. Preoccupation with what happened is common, as they continue to think about their actions and try to integrate residual feelings of guilt or shame about what they did or did not do. Emotionally and behaviorally, children may become more easily upset, either overreacting to things or becoming more constricted and withdrawn than before. Sleeping and eating patterns may change as well.

These changes are actually hardwired into the brain to help children survive their stressful experiences; however, in our modern world, and especially in school, this may impact our children’s capacity to learn. Their ability to concentrate, focus, organize and retain new learning may be highly compromised as they seek to adjust to their new normal. And when the school itself is associated with the trauma, there may be even greater disruptions due to high levels of emotional distress of all the students and faculty. All of this adds to the potential for disruptive behaviors and loss of attendance unless we make a concerted effort to reach out to students and provide them with extra support.

Tomorrow’s article will cover signs of serious problems to watch for and overcoming traumas.

For more information about Trauma-Informed Care at Beech Brook, contact Kate Biddle, Assistant Vice President of Clinical Services, at kbiddle@beechbrook.org , call 216.831.2255 (toll free 877.546.1225), or visit our website.

Geauga News
Author: Geauga News