In Returning to School After a Traumatic Event Part I of this article, we mentioned there are many variables that affect how a person reacts to and copes with trauma, based on their personal dynamics. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network is an excellent source of information about the impact of trauma on children and recommends watching for these signs to determine if a child is experiencing serious problems.
Has the child recently lost developmental skills previously acquired or regressed to simpler speech and habits (thumb sucking or clinging)? Because young children have less capacity for expressing their feelings and needs through words, their symptoms are more likely to come out through their behaviors and problems in their physical functioning, such as sleep issues (being afraid to sleep or having nightmares) and being more irritable or aggressive.
Elementary School Students
Children in this age group are more likely to show their distress through somatic reactions such as headaches, stomachaches or other pains. It is important to understand that they are not making up these symptoms, but actually experiencing these discomforts on a physical level. They may have an increase in angry or aggressive behaviors or be more inconsistent in how they react to things in general. This is an age where they may talk more excessively about the traumatic event as well. School work particularly may suffer as maintaining attention and organizing themselves can be more difficult.
Middle and High School Students
These students are more likely to feel self-conscious about their emotional responses to what has occurred. They may experience heightened feelings, especially in regards to emotions related to guilt, shame, or wanting to retaliate. This is an age when young people are developing their capacity for deeper thinking, and this kind of experience can significantly alter their world view and their sense of who they are in the world. It is a time when youth may exhibit more high-risk behaviors such as using drugs, engaging in other reckless or self-harming activities, getting into more arguments and fights, or becoming more withdrawn. There may be a shift in their interpersonal relationships with family members, teachers, and classmates. These students may show a change in their school performance, attendance and behavior.
While any or all of these reactions can be expected, every child will respond in his/her unique way. These symptoms may be present and then dissipate, only to resurface at a later time because of some reminder of the trauma. While there is often a wish for and pressure to “move on and get over this,” this reaction does not help children who are struggling to integrate their experiences.
Helping children overcome a traumatic event
What does help is recognizing that these reactions are normal for a person who has gone through an abnormal situation.
Keep in mind that traumatic events are pretty rare in the overall scheme of life and try to maintain that perspective, for both yourself and your child.
Know that children can and will recover in time and that these experiences do not have to be damaging forever. In fact, research shows that children who are given support to successfully work through traumatic experiences often end up being deeper, more compassionate and helpful than many of their peers.
Actively listening and validating the child’s experience goes a long way in helping them integrate and promote their healing. You do not want to overreact or under-react to the symptoms the child or youth may be presenting. If a child is exhibiting problems regulating their emotions and behaviors, hear out the feelings that are being expressed and connect this to what may be driving the behaviors or how they may be connected to the trauma.
As much as possible, maintain basic rules and routines because this helps children know what to expect and ultimately gives them a sense of control and safety. If a child is highly resistant to returning to school, it might be helpful to make a plan with small steps that will help the child face what he/she is most afraid of about returning and then help him/her take those steps. If this is too complicated, it may be wise to seek mental health support to help the child working through his/her avoidance and fears successfully.
Be aware of your own past traumas
This is also an important time to reflect on one’s own life experiences. If there are unresolved traumatic experiences in your past, it may make your reactions to the child’s situation even more intense. It is always a good idea to take a step back and do what you need to do to take care of yourself. If necessary, continue working on your own healing journey so that you can provide the best possible help for the children in your care.
“You cannot push the river” is an old saying that speaks to how important it is to understand that the course of recovery is not a linear process that one can simply move through and be done with. It is essential to understand that each person will do this in his/her own time and own way and to respect and accept this process; however, if you are concerned that the symptoms and reactions to the traumatic event are continuing for a prolonged period of time or that the reactions seem to be too intense, it is a good idea to seek an assessment to see if counseling might be beneficial.
For more information about Trauma-Informed Care at Beech Brook, contact Kate Biddle, Assistant Vice President of Clinical Services, at email@example.com , call 216.831.2255 (toll free 877.546.1225), or visit our website.