Although most of us wish that children could be sheltered from the pain in life, the reality is that many youngsters endure real trauma during their developmental years. One of the more common forms of modern trauma is the breakup of the family. Divorce is certainly hard for the adults who go through it but it can actually be traumatic for children – because of the loss of contact with a beloved parent, because of conflict that accompanies it, or because of life changes such as moving away from friends and family, acquiring a “step family” and so on. Death of a parent is another, usually traumatizing, experience that many children endure. But many children endure all kinds of other traumas that are less spoken about such as the serious illness and/or death of a sibling, family violence or chronic, intense conflict, addictions or mental illness within the family and much, much more. Children react to these kinds of intense stresses differently from adults. In fact, parents may not even realize that the child is suffering, since one of the common ways that kids handle overwhelming stress is to “act normal!”
If there has been intense stress in your child’s life, consider the following tips:
No Reaction is a Reaction
Suppose your friend was a passenger in a car that experienced a serious collision. The driver and two other passengers were instantly killed. The car was demolished, blood was everywhere, four firetrucks, 3 ambulances and 5 police vehicles were on the scene within minutes. Your friend miraculously escaped unharmed. Over the next days, weeks and months, this friend went about his or her business as if nothing at all had happened. He or she ate well, continued to joke around and enjoy life, never spoke about the accident and just went on very much “as normal.” Wouldn’t you find that a bit strange?
This is exactly the way many children respond to traumatic events in their lives. Instead of registering the pain and acting it out, they appear on the outside to be completely fine. What has probably happened, however, is that the overwhelming pain has been dissociated – cut off from the child’s conscious awareness. It is stored somewhere where the child can’t feel it just yet. It may surface years or even decades later, as more life stress builds up and eventually triggers it. Sometimes, it remains mentally dissociated for a lifetime, but expresses itself through the body in various forms of physical disease. The reason that children dissociate in this way is that they don’t have the emotional or intellectual resources to assimilate the experience. In other words, they just can’t handle it at the time it is happening.
If it appears that your child is not affected by a traumatic event, in reality he is quite likely affected! However, you can help. First of all, make sure that YOU are talking about the events. Some parents think, “why rock the boat? If my kid isn’t bothered by the tragedy, I’m sure not going to mention it!” Or, parents think to themselves, “the child is too young to understand or care about what is happening. There is no need to discuss it with him or her.” This is exactly the opposite of a helpful response. The child is likely to assume that the incident or events CANNOT be spoken about because they are way too terrible. On the other hand, when parents talk about what is happening and name their own feelings about it, they help children to take in the experience as a legitimate part of life and they help the child learn that his or her feelings about it are normal, expected, healthy and welcome. For instance, suppose a family suffers a crib death of their new baby. The mother can approach their children aged 4 and 6 and say something like, “It is so sad for all of us that our baby died. Daddy and I are so sad right now. You might be feeling that way too. We’re also confused. It’s hard to understand how this happened so suddenly; the baby was healthy just yesterday! You must also be feeling confused. We will all be thinking about this for quite awhile. Eventually, the pain will go away and we’ll all be happy again.” Parents can include any spiritual beliefs that they hold and want to provide their kids with at times of tremendous stress and upheaval.
While children may not be able to express their shock and pain in words, they may be able to feel it in their bodies. Headaches, tummy aches, colds and flu’s can all increase as an aftermath of intense stress. Play therapy can help children who are “somatizing” (sending emotions through their physical bodies) and talking therapies can help older kids and teens in the same way. Once emotions are acknowledged, physical complaints often subside.
Sleep Issues May be a Reaction
A child may have trouble sleeping through the night or sleeping alone in his or her bed. Or, the child may have trouble falling asleep or may suffer from nightmares. This may be part of a larger syndrome of Acute Stress Disorder (that happens as a trauma is occurring or within the month following) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (that happens more than a month after traumatic events have ended) or Chronic Stress Disorder (the effects of ongoing stress such as living with family violence or addiction or other deeply disturbing issues).
Psychotherapy will help the child clear out the feelings of stress. This will allow him or her to have restful, normal sleep.
Anxiety and Mood Issues may be a Reaction
A child or teen may experience panic attacks, separation anxiety (always wanting to be in the presence of loved ones), increased irritability or chronic sadness. Again, when parents are able to talk about what is happening in the family, children experience fewer emotional symptoms. Sometimes, however, the child or teen may benefit most from personal counseling in order to process the events and lift the burden of stress from the mind oand body.
Misbehavior or “Acting Out” may be a Reaction
Sometimes children become rebellious, disrespectful, impulsive or otherwise poorly behaved at home and/or school in response to stress that is happening at home. Particularly if the poor behavior is a change from previous functioning, parents should consider the possibility of this being a reaction to stress. Counseling for the parents may help reduce the stress in the home and the child’s behavior may simply improve by itself as a consequence. However, some of the stress that may trigger poor behavior are not remediable by parent counseling (for instance, the death of a family member). Nonetheless, parents may benefit from counseling that can address specific behavior and emotional interventions that THEY can provide for their child at home. If these are insufficient, the child him or herself, may need some sort of counseling or behavior therapy.