Coping with Trauma

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Although we always hope the the course of family life and growing up will run smoothly, almost every child will be disrupted by what we call a "traumatic" event before reaching maturity.

Short-Term Events, Lasting Effects

By definition a trauma is a sudden, unexpected, dramatic, forceful, or violent event. It very often involves some kind of bodily harm as well as fright. Child psychiatrists have been concerned about the lasting effects of traumatic experiences. Even though these experiences may be of short duration, they can lead to phobias or other kinds of lasting psychic effects.

It would not be surprising for a child involved in a violent auto crash or a tornado to develop strong and lasting fears of autos and highways or thunderstorms and noisy whistling winds. In the same way, a child who is very suddenly approached by a large, fierce dog could be traumatized by the experience, even though most adults think children should take such moments in their stride. Certainly not all will react strongly to such experiences. Most children in alarming situations look toward the nearest familiar adult and take on the same emotional reaction they perceive in him or her.

Preparing for the Unpredictable

Because these kinds of experiences are sudden and unpredictable, there is no way gradually to prepare the child in advance. We are always faced with the problem of how to minimize the potentially harmful effects afterwards.

It is generally helpful following dramatic events for the adults to stay as quiet and calm as possible, even faking it if necessary. There's plenty of time to collapse later after the child has been calmed! The emotionality of adults appears to be quite contagious among even very young children; thus adults can often be most helpful by deliberately absorbing a child's tension-somewhat like a sponge-by listening, holding, rocking, caressing, and quietly reassuring the child. If the adult in the situation reacts with the same level of tension and emotionality as the child, the levels will escalate as each one feels more tense when she senses the other's tension. A traumatic moment can be stretched out to an unnecessarily long ordeal.

Occasionally adults try to help by denying that anything really unusual happened or by avoiding the subject completely. Certainly some judgement must be exercised as to whether to bring up the matter of the traumatic experience. but it seems wiser, generally, to be open in acknowledging not only the event itself but the strong and painful feelings it engendered. The child can then be reassured that it is all right to be upset, and can be encouraged to talk about why she's upset whenever she wants to. If the youngster resists bringing up the subject, then it is probably best to wait a few days and try again. In cases of strong reluctance to talk about the event, it is helpful to say something to the child like, "It's okay if you don't want to talk about it just now, but when you do, I'll be here." The idea is to give the child a strategy for letting you know when she is ready and by which she can act on her own impulse to explore her feelings. Many children require this sense of initiative while they are working out their feelings and getting ready to deal with them. Many children react to even a little pressure to face the subject by digging their heels in deeper and deeper, and so the painful feelings may never be adequately explored.

Overcoming the Event

Opportunities for spontaneous play with other children, in which they act out the traumatic events, are probably the easiest and most effective way to help children overcome the effects of these events. Young children have been reported to play "hurricane," "cyclone," and many terrible war scenes, apparently with beneficial effects in dealing with life's unavoidable frightening moments.

Credits: Lilian G. Katz

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