2020 Childhood Trauma Survival Guide

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By Sarah Fowler

As many Americans are beginning to embrace post-pandemic freedom, many of Worldwide Speech’s international clients are still in lockdown, in a country with a limited supply of vaccinations, and/or in the midst of a third wave with victims of new strains of the coronavirus. Other families both remotely and abroad have lost loved ones, been disconnected from their families, lost their jobs, homes, and sanity. Some are the witnesses and/or victims of police brutality, mass shootings, hate crimes, racism, sexism, homophobia, you name it. 2020 sure was a doozy with a “small” trauma here and a “big” trauma there. It has been over a year and a half since the commencement of the collective traumas of 2020 and many of us are left wondering, how will this nightmare of a year affect our children?

To address this burning question, we must first understand what trauma truly is.

When you hear the word trauma, what do you think? War veteran? PTSD? Motorvehicular accident? Abuse? Brain Injury? When we think about trauma we tend to think of the stereotypical “big” traumas. However, society fails to discuss the true definition of trauma, which is simply a psychological or emotional response to an event or experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. Let’s begin by eliminating the phrasing of “big/small” traumas because the event itself doesn’t even define an experience as traumatic. The way an individual reacts to the experience does. While we tend to see traumas on a spectrum from “big to small” or “severe to mild,” I’d like you to consider the following scenario.

Imagine you are a child who had a wonderful upbringing with two loving parents, filled with the privilege of resources and opportunities. When you’re a freshman in high school, your parents decide to file for a divorce. Both of your parents attempt to win you over for the upcoming custody battle.  On a trauma scale of 1-10, you might rate this experience as a 10 considering it is, in fact, the worst trauma you have ever lived through.

Now imagine you’re a child who was a victim of childhood abuse. Or whose mother or father was a victim of abuse. Or who was raised in a family with alcoholism. Or who experienced the death of a loved one. Or maybe you experienced all of the above. Would you rate your parents getting a divorce as a 10 on your trauma scale? Probably not. You might even rate it as a measly 3 because the personal abuse was a 10, parental abuse was a 9, the loss of a loved one as an 8, and the repeated trauma from a parent who suffers from alcoholism was a 7. Maybe you might even wish your parents would have gotten divorced sooner. This is where we have to remind ourselves of empathy because while something may not feel like a 10 on your trauma scale (or your hypothetical trauma scale), it could feel like the end of the world to another. Always remember, trauma is trauma no matter how “big” or “small.” Pain is relative to our experiences.

Now imagine you’re in kindergarten. You’re going on your first field trip. Your mom warns you not to take your favorite stuffed animal Teddy with you since you can’t sleep at night without it. She tells you that taking it on a field trip is too dangerous because you could easily lose it. You don’t listen to your mom and instead sneak Teddy into your backpack. While you’re at the aquarium, you take Teddy out to see your favorite exhibit. You both sit down on a bench and enjoy watching the fish swim, losing track of time. Your friend suddenly grabs you by the hand and tells you the class is getting on the bus. You run to the bus, unaware that Teddy had fallen under the bench, out of your sight. You get home, only to realize Teddy is not in your backpack. Your best-stuffed friend is gone, and your mom was right. You cry in your room, fearful that mom will say the dreaded four words, “I told you so.” Wouldn’t that experience be considered highly distressing or disturbing? You’re in tears, unable to sleep at night, you miss your teddy, and sadly cannot get it back. Your brain even makes an emotional imprint of this event so that you don’t make the same mistake again. Given the definition, this experience is still considered trauma.

Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) vs. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Given that trauma has a complicated spectrum relative to each individual’s experience, it’s important to know that post-traumatic stress (PTS) varies greatly from person to person and from trauma to trauma. Before we discuss PTS, let’s talk about how it differs from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTS is a common, biologically adaptive response to experiencing trauma or stress. Car accidents, divorce, loss of a career, and collective trauma (e.g. each instance of police brutality, hate crime, or even the pandemic) are all things that could trigger PTS. Almost anytime your body experiences a threat or potential threat, it shifts into fight-flight-or-freeze mode. This may cause increased heart rate, shaking, teeth chattering, sweating, or increase blood flow to your muscles, or a catatonic state as if you were a deer in the headlights. These sensations are overwhelming and uncomfortable and might even turn into a panic attack. Intervention for PTS is not typically needed as symptoms subside on their own, but practices like mindfulness and mediation can help us cope with the feelings associated with PTS. [1]

On the other hand, PTSD involves symptoms that continue for more than one month, are severe, and interfere with your daily functioning. Don’t forget, PTSD is a spectrum that differs from person to person due to individual biology and the environment/experience which shaped us [1].

Individuals (including children) with less severe PTSD may [2]:
  • Have difficulty communicating which it can manifest as the inability to make small talk, or open up to friends and family.
  • Avoid people and social gatherings.
  • Have bad dreams or difficulty sleeping.
  • Have a repressed sense of worthlessness or hopelessness.
  • Get upset at everyday things you wouldn’t usually be upset by.
  • Be triggered by familiar situations.

Note: just because these symptoms are less severe, doesn’t mean they are any less real or disturbing.

People with more severe PTSD may:
  • Have dissociative episodes
  • Have night terrors and insomnia
  • Experience flashbacks
  • Experience delusions
  • Constantly think about their trauma no matter what they try
  • Avoiding people/situations that remind them of the trauma

People with PTSD have ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys. Sometimes an individual may feel like they’ve fully healed, only to have another flashback that puts them right back at rock bottom.

Can you have post-traumatic stress if the trauma is still ongoing?

The pandemic is a prolonged event causing widespread panic. Children are seeing and hearing frightening news on television every day. Some have lost family members or loved ones. This is an important moment to remember that our children are sponges and soak up far more harmful information than we’d like them to. However, if a child’s caregivers are relatively calm and reassuring, this can be a protective factor. If caregivers are overwhelmed with their own worry, panic, and grief, it can be hard to give said reassurance. While worry, confusion, and sadness are to be expected, we need to look at specific emotional and behavioral reactions that might indicate traumatic stress rather than post-traumatic stress, considering the current stressors are ongoing.

However, given that there is a lack of education surrounding how greatly traumas vary and how they affect each of us uniquely, trauma can often occur unbeknownst to the survivor. Ask your child what trauma is. Ask them if they think they’ve been through trauma. They might not even connect that the last year was been one big ol’ collective ongoing trauma, and how that can affect the way they feel. Ask them if they truly understand what can happen to a little mind when exposed to trauma? I sure didn’t know when I was young and I continue to see a lack of understanding in both younger and older generations alike. So, let’s talk specifically about the effects of the traumas our children have faced in the infamous year of 2020 as mentioned in the introduction.

  • Unwanted thoughts or images: Your child may replay certain thoughts or images in their mind when awake, or in nightmares that symbolically, not literally represent the trauma they’ve experienced.
  • Impaired emotional regulation: Some of the feelings your child may experience and have difficulty controlling are sadness, irritability, hopelessness, anger, grief, anxiety/worry, and fear.
  • Backsliding: Children may regress on things such as bedwetting, separation anxiety, or sleep difficulties.
  • Avoidance behaviors: Avoiding situations, places, or things that remind them of what is happening is common. If they are unable to avoid triggers, they may become angry or irritated. In addition, because of the widespread fear the pandemic has instilled, many children are still terrified to shed their masks and trust in science once it’s finally okay to do so.|
  • Social Anxiety: As many children are returning to in-person learning, symptoms of social anxiety may surface. Children who already had introverted tendencies may have more difficulty with small talk, serious conversations, and as a result, avoid social situations.
  • Difficulty concentrating: As if virtual learning isn’t hard enough, trauma can lead to difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness.
  • Distorted self-image: Children who belong to marginalized communities such as POC and the LGBTQ+ community may have a distorted self-image based on the retelling of current events from biased news sources surrounding topics of police brutality, the reality of systemic racism, hate crimes, and discrimination.

Want to learn more about how to recognize trauma in children? Check out How To Spot Signs Of Trauma In Children During COVID-19 from HuffPost.

The video below gives a child’s perspective of a traumatic experience.

How to teach your child about trauma?

As always, Worldwide Speech is here to help you help your child find their voice. Knowing what trauma is and how it can impact our and our little one’s minds could make the difference in the trajectory of your child’s journey towards healing from trauma. If I had understood post-traumatic stress disorder and the many forms it can take when trauma is repressed, maybe I wouldn’t have spent a full year post-trauma feeling crazy, outcasted, and alone.

We love the following 9 tips for talking to kids about trauma from Greater Good Magazine
  1. Initiate the conversation: Just because they aren’t talking about, doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about it. Children sense discomfort resulting in a reluctance to “burden you” with their personal struggles. When you explain the fact of the matter, many of the stories their fears create dissipate with the affirmation that they are not alone and there is a reason they feel the way they do. Luckily children as young as four or five benefit from talking about the traumatic event. Here are some suggested phrases to begin your conversation [3]:
    • How do you feel about what is happening in the world? [3]
    • What are you or your friends thinking and talking about in terms of the world situation? [3]
    • Are you and your friends talking about [insert current event]? I’d be really interested to hear what you think. Let me know if you want to talk. [3]
  2. Reassure them: Things will get better and you will be there for them. They can ask you questions at any time. Remind them they are safe and so are the people they care about. [3]
  3. Listen: As a speech-language pathologist I’ll be the first to tell you that a conversation isn’t all talk. Communication requires the back and forth exchange to communicate meaning. This means there is a sender and a receiver, a talker and a listener. Balance your conversation and allow time for your child to respond. To encourage this back and forth exchange, ask open-ended questions like [3]:
    • That’s interesting, can you tell me more about it? [3]
    • What do you mean by…? [3]
    • How long have you been feeling…? [3]
  4. Find out what they know. As mentioned previously, children are sponges. They pick up things from snippets of the news, social media, friends, and even other family members like older siblings. The purpose is to correct any misconceptions while offering concrete information.
    • If a question is too difficult to answer, here are some suggested responses [3]:
      • I don’t know the answer to that and I’m not sure anyone does. But many thoughtful people across the globe are working to figure it out. [3]
      • That’s an interesting question and I don’t know the answer. How could we find that out together? [3]
  5. Encourage children to share their feelings. Whatever children are feeling, parents should show understanding and acceptance. [3]
  6. Share your feelings. Many experts agree that sharing your feelings with a child can be beneficial. Make sure you explain that you can handle whatever you’re feeling to avoid burdening them with adult concerns. [3]
  7. Focus on the good [3]: Check out our blog, Let’s Shift the Focus of 2021: Learning and Gratitude for more information on how to shift our focus to gratitude.
  8. Encourage children to act: This can help them find an outlet to express how they are feeling. Some suggestions include writing letters to victims, sending thank you notes to doctors, paramedics, or firefighters, or raising money for charity. [3]
  9. Know when to seek outside help. [3] You should seek professional help if:
    • Your child’s symptoms are severe enough that they significantly interfere with daily routines, socialization, or schoolwork.
    • Your child has been previously exposed to trauma or already diagnosed with anxiety or other mood problems.
    • Your child has experienced loss or grief, even if it doesn’t outwardly appear traumatizing.

What do we recommend?

Learn about trauma and how it can affect children.

Don’t fear, Wonder Mom is here! Wondermoms.org contacted us with another great story (see Sensory friendly life hacks for the home for our original post) from the Sesame Street in Community. Watch the short video below on traumatic experiences and read their article titled, “Traumatic Experiences” which provides an option to select whether you’re a provider or caregiver/parent with specific activities, tips, tricks, and guidance on how to handle childhood trauma.

Talk to your children.

Have the hard conversations. Ask them about their feelings and how their feelings affect how they interact with others. Be there for them through the good feelings and the not-so-good. Through the love and the hate. Reassure them that it’s okay to feel through the good and the bad. And that while these feelings have lasted a long time (relative to their time on earth), they will not last forever. And that one day, we will all feel safe enough to carry on with our lives, pre-pandemic.

While you can’t prevent your child from experiencing trauma, you can provide them with tools to handle life’s biggest challenges.

Incorporate mindfulness practices in your child’s daily life

Mindfulness has been proven to raise emotionally secure, self-aware children who are better equipped to handle life’s tribulations given their understanding of how to ground themselves in the present moment. Anxiety is living in the future and grief/sadness are living in the past. Mindfulness brings us back to this moment where negative emotions can come and go like clouds in the sky. It allows us to take the observer seat to our thoughts and emotions, giving us a sense of control over our journey towards healing from trauma.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness without sitting in cross-legged while humming, “Ommm.” You can do almost anything mindfully! Eating, walking, swimming, playing with friends, you name it. What’s the key? Doing whatever activity you choose and actively choosing to be in the present moment while doing it. You can practice using thinking of all your senses to root you in the present moment.

Take mindfully watching a thunderstorm for example. Listen to the pitter-patter of the rain on the roof. Smell the unmistakable summer rain smell. See the lightning flash in the sky. Hear the huge booms of thunder. Feel how the thunder makes the house rumble.

Closing Notes

I’d like to leave you with a poem from my mother, Bridgette Fowler’s book titled, “Grow with Me Poetry.” In this particular poem, she describes a conversation my father and I had after I experienced my own trauma. x

“A wise man’s young daughter once sat at his knee
And told him There’s something that’s troubling me.
For try as she would, her voice felt trapped inside
As if from life’s hard choices it wanted to hide
Her heart was weighed down and her mind full of chatter
With Why this? and What if ? and Does it all matter?
And further perplexed, she heard two distinct voices
Which gave her conflicting and very hard choices
One voice was tiny and so very small
Yet it spoke of a truth that encompassed the All
But the other was loud, like a megaphone s h o u t i n g
Of the anger and worry that had left her heart doubting
She quietly spoke of the duel in her head
This tumbling out, the next words that she said
How can my tiny voice win out over the loud?
To her great surprise, her father was proud
Of the strength that it took to share what was so troubling
Then to ask for his help with what inside had been bubbling
So then from his wise lips in a casual drawl
He said, You just feed the tiny ’til it grows tall
But what should I feed it? she implored with a tear
Don’t worry, he told her, I’ll make it quite clear
Feed yourself time, and in time you will see
The voice that calls out will soon set you free
So she mustered the courage and did what he said
And her tiny, meek voice became LOUD in her head!
Time did pass by, and she often will say
What a wise man said to his daughter one day.”

Bridgette Fowler. Grow with Me Poetry . Belle Isle Books.

20 Resources with more tips on how to handle the collective traumas of 2020:

  1. Will my child bounce back from the coronavirus crisis
  2. What is child trauma/trauma types: disasters and pandemic resources
  3. Trauma affecting children during covid-19 pandemic
  4. Trauma informed parenting in the age of covid-19
  5. Pandemic trauma and schooling supporting kids in crisis
  6. Trauma informed strategies for supporting children and youth in the child welfare system during covid-19
  7. Talking with Children about War and Violence in the World
  8. Helping Traumatized Children: A Brief Overview for Caregivers
  9.  Mr. Roger’s most enduring tips and insights
  10. Manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting
  11. Helping Your Children Cope with Disasters and Traumatic Events
  12. National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) tips for “Talking to Children about the Shooting” 
  13. Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators
  14. UMD Med resources for dealing with traumatic events in schools, including resources for parents and caregivers
  15. Helping Children Cope with Terrorism—Tips for Families and Educators
  16. Tips for Talking with and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event
  17. Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do
  18. Talking with Children and Adolescents After a Traumatic Event 
  19. Trauma and Children—Tips For Parents
  20. Managing Tough Times: Suggestions for Families and Staff

References

  1. https://www.brainline.org/article/what-are-differences-between-pts-and-ptsd
  2. https://apibhs.com/2018/09/07/seven-signs-you-have-mild-ptsd-rather-than-anxiety
  3. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/nine_tips_for_talking_to_kids_about_trauma

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