This article is based on the slide bullet points shown at the Trauma training provided by The School Box Project and Dr. Gabriella Bronson-Castain at Live Oak Charter School on October 16, 2017. The notes following are my own.
Times of Acute Stress and Traumatic Events
In times of stress, we try to shield our children. This is a normal protective instinct. Sadly, in times of disaster (which is a cause of Acute Stress), as with our fires, it becomes almost impossible when everyone, everywhere, is talking about it, it is all over the television and we ourselves are either involved in surviving or helping others in dire need.
It is important for us to recognize the signs and symptoms of Acute Stress in ourselves and our children so we can better support our families and friends moving through this time of stress in as healthy a manner as possible. It is also important to remember that there is no “perfect” way. We will all do our best…
Acute Stress reactions can come right away or take up to a month or more to exhibit them. Sometimes a child won’t act out until they feel safe enough again to “let it out”.
Small triggers may come up now or in the future and are different for everyone. A sound, a sight, a smell etc. will bring up different emotion and reaction for each person. Notice and be sensitive to what triggers you may see in your children.
Once triggered, our limbic system takes over and we (and our children) become deregulated and we go into our Fight, Flight or Freeze reactions.
Preschool age reactions can include:
Separation anxiety or clinginess
Especially if a family was separated, displaced or had a parent gone for long hours helping in the disaster. Your child may be afraid to be out of the same room as you, however may not have the emotional maturity to understand why, much less express it verbally.
Regression in previously mastered stages
Your child may be having potty accidents or not sleeping well in their own bed or even not wanting to put their own shoes on any more. Newly acquired skills are often pushed aside or forgotten in times of fear.
Lack of developmental progress
Some children may temporarily slow down in their acquisition of new skills. Their little brains are hyper aware of what is going on around them and do not have the capacity to take anything new on for awhile.
Recreating the traumatic event
This is widely seen! This is the way they are processing what they are seeing and hearing around them. Your will see it in “pretending” play, songs, and conversations.
Difficulty at naptime or bedtime
As scary as it is for us to try to sleep right now, we at least have a better understanding of what is happening around us, they do not. They often will be afraid their parent will disappear while they are asleep or that they will be woken up and rushed away while sleepy and confused. They are also afraid of what may happen to those they love while asleep so don’t want be away from them.
Increased somatic complaints
“My tummy hurts, my leg hurts, my head hurts” These complaints may be real or not. Know your child’s base line and understand that sometimes they just need some one on one attention or comfort and don’t know how to say it.
Changes in behavior
Clingy, angry, moody, etc.… There are a lot of emotions flying all around them and they may be “trying some on” they have seen out of curiosity, having feelings they don’t understand yet or their mirror neurons may be kicking in so are reacting back to us in the ways we are reacting towards them.
Our children have very probably never experienced or seen the extreme amount of fear that the adults around them are feeling. This is scary to see and creates all sorts of “unreasonable” fears (in our opinions) or brings up some new fears, especially of new places, people or experiences. They don’t know what to trust.
Constant worry about safety of self and others
The conversations all around them is about who is safe and who is not. We don’t always have time, or remember, to explain the situations or outcomes to them. This creates some anxiety about what “safe” means and if those loved ones around them are really safe or not. It can become a constant question.
Additional signs in older children may include:
Concern about reoccurrence of traumatic events.
They or those close to them may have been evacuated more than once so they are hyper aware and tensed, ready for it to happen again.
Distrust of others and/or difficulty with authority, redirection or criticism
With so many different “cooks in the kitchen” and orders being perhaps barked at them by many different adults who are stressed themselves, as well as reports of looters etc. they may recede into themselves or act out against others as they are feel they can only trust themselves.
Poor impulse control
When we are deregulated and our senses on overload, it is difficult to access our normal coping skills.
Difficulty completing tasks, highly distractable and difficulty concentrating.
Brains are on overload! Be patient!
So what do we do now?
Keep our routines as best as possible.
Little things like a story at bedtime and washing hands before eating can go a long way towards calming a child and helping the feel safe. They need what is familiar as much as we can provide it.
They are feeling an extreme sense of being out of control (much as we are). Little choices like what color socks they want to wear or if they want to brush their teeth before putting on jammies or after, give some feeling of having some control of what is happening to them. Give as many as you possibly can.
Give an increased level of support
This is a time for understanding and learning, not a time for punitive punishment. While we may be out of patience, we still have to remember what an increased crazy, hectic, scary time this is for our children and act accordingly.
Recognize behaviors are transient
These out of the ordinary or regressed behaviors will go away. As the children feel safe and secure, the behaviors will decrease! We are not stuck with them permanently!
Create a safe place to talk
This may be a corner in a room, under a blanket or even with an adult other than you. We want them to share their experiences and feelings in order to release them in a healthy manner.
Engage in a calm, non-judgmental voice (even if you are feeling triggered)
The calmer we are, the calmer they can become. Responding to them and their concerns/fears without judgment or shaming is vital. While we may not want to validate them, it is because we have many more years of experience, cognitive ability and coping skills. They do not have those yet and it is our job to gently acknowledge and validate them where they are in their experience.
Less talking is better
They need to be able to spew! They may be talking a mile a minute or sputtering out minutes apart. What they most need from us is to listen, validate and perhaps ask some curiosity questions. “That was scary”, “It sounds like you were being brave”, “How were you feeling when that happened?” We don’t need to “fix” them; we just need to hear them.
Assure safety at all times
It will take some time for us as adults to feel safe and the same is true for children. We may need to reassure them many times during the day and for weeks to come. Give short, specific, easy to understand reasons why or how they are safe. 10 words or less! The more we give them age appropriate facts, the safer they will feel.
Possibly find comfort items
A simple small stuffed animal, pillow, blanket or toy can go a long way. Something physical to hold onto, hug and sometimes share brings comfort and allows some body relaxation on a cellular level.
We may be freaking out inside and showing it in small body and facial expressions, and that may be a time to trade off with another trusted adult. When we can genuinely present a grounded force, they will respond accordingly. They pay attention to our every little reaction and need to see us being strong and brave even when we are scared. It is good modeling and creates a sense of safety. Calm emotional honesty is good, extreme emotional reactions or outbursts are not.
Remember, there is no perfect response
We will all do the best we can in the moment! Please be kind and forgiving to your self as we will all do something or react some way we will look back on later and wish we had done differently. Many, if not most, parents have never experienced anything like this themselves so there is a learning curve we have to allow for.
Frank Ostaseski of Zen Hospice in San Francisco developed 5 precepts of compassionate caregiving: *Notes are mine
Welcome everything. Push away nothing
Encourage processing and expressing emotions. Let them out so they don’t fester and build into something worse.
Bring your whole self to the experience
Be really present with the child. Look them in the eye; let them trust you are really listening
If you have fears or concerns for your child, address them now! Trust your gut!
Find a place of rest in the middle of things
Be thoughtful and caring of yourself. You cannot take on everything that is happening around us and be able to do what your child needs from you if you are on overload.
Cultivate “don’t know” mind.
It is ok to not know all the answers. It is a skill to develop and teach our children. We do not always have control over everything around us and have to find the patience and strength to wait for answers.
Finally, be aware of Trauma Myths!
It’s better to just move on, forget, and not talk about past painful experiences
It is important to let children talk, share, cry or otherwise express their feelings. It is good to check in with them periodically to ensure they are past the Acute Stress.
They seem fine – they are laughing and playing
Children are resilient! However they may still be festering under the surface so it is important to pay attention to the changes in behaviors and being patient when they are ready to ask questions and share.
Thank you to the School box Project and Dr. Gabriella Bronson-Castain for the bullet points listed here and the Frank Ostaseski information as presented at the Trauma Training at Live Oak Charter School on October 15, 2017. All additional notes were written by Catherine McCracken Jones
Catherine McCracken Jones has worked in the Early Childhood Education field for 21 years. She is a Certified Positive Discipline Parent and Classroom Trainer through the Positive Discipline Association.