Kids Living with Fear: Recognizing and Healing Trauma

By Linda Goldman

Ordinary fears are a normal part of a child’s developmental growth, and children create internal and external mechanisms to cope with them. But a child’s “ordinary fears” can be transformed into very real “survival fears” in the face of severe trauma.

Today’s kids live in a world of physical and sexual abuse, extreme bullying, gang violence, natural disasters, economic catastrophe, war and school shootings. These events can cause panic, stress and extreme anxiety in kids’ lives, and these feelings can be heightened by constant replays of tragic and graphic events in the media.

The terror that grips our children in these circumstances emerges from situations that suddenly overwhelm them and leave them feeling helpless, hopeless and unable to cope. Trauma is defined by the Encarta® World English Dictionary as “an extremely distressing experience that causes severe emotional shock and may have long-lasting psychological effects or a physical injury or wound to the body.” An unexpected and shocking event can destroy a child’s ability to cope and function in a normal way. Children witness and are recipients of any number of traumas in their homes, schools, communities and nations. In many children, these traumas can develop into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in which present events can trigger memories of trauma that result in children experiencing panic, anxiety, disorientation, fear and all the psycho-physical feelings associated with the traumatic memory. These symptoms are not easily understood, and they often appear out of context with the objective reality of the child’s situation. Both the child and his or her caretakers can be perplexed by these reactions and may easily misinterpret them if the connection to the underlying trauma is not recognized.

Signs of traumatized children
Caring adults need to recognize the signs of grieving and traumatized children, and they need to be aware of the techniques and resources available to help bring safety and protection back to the child’s inner and outer world. For example, listening to children’s thoughts and feelings and providing a safe means of expression helps teachers, parents and counselors reinforce their ability to ensure a safe and protected environment. Traumatized children tend to re-create their trauma, often experiencing bad dreams, waking fears and reoccurring flashbacks. Young children have a very hard time putting these behaviors into any context of safety. Many withdraw and isolate themselves, regress and appear anxious and develop sleeping and eating disorders to mask their deep interpretations of their traumas.

Young children may engage in post-traumatic play by compulsively repeating some aspect of the trauma.
The most common identifying factors that children are re-experiencing the event are play reenactment, nightmares, waking memories and disturbing thoughts and feelings about the event. Sometimes, kids avoid reminders of the traumatic event and show little conscious interest. Many traumatized children exhibit hyper-arousal by increased sleep problems, irritability, inability to concentrate, startle reactions and regressive behaviors.

When caring adults can identify traumatized kids, they can normalize grief and trauma signs and develop ways kids can express their feelings and emotions. Parents, educators, and other caring professionals can model, present and support comfortable ways to bring safety and protection back into kids’ lives.

Children and magical thinking
Young children may employ “magical thinking” after traumatic events – they believe that they somehow “caused” the problem, whether it was the death of a goldfish or an assault upon America. Parents can reassure their children that there was nothing they could have done to cause or prevent war or floods or hurricanes or violence in their neighborhoods or the death of a relative. Some kids may also feel survival guilt. They may wonder, “Why am I living when so many others have died?” Adults can reframe guilt and magical thinking from “What could I have done?” to “What can I do now?” This will help children focus on positive activities that may have far-reaching effects such as raising money for displaced or injured victims or educating classmates about how traumatic events can change the lives of individuals, communities or even entire countries. Talking about a personal trauma can make it easier to bear because it has been shared with another who understands, sympathizes and repeatedly tells the child that he or she could not have prevented the trauma from occurring.

At-risk behaviors
Children may begin to exhibit at-risk behaviors after a traumatic event. The frequency, intensity and duration of these behaviors are important factors to consider. Children may experience post-traumatic stress, revisiting the traumatic event through outside stimuli like photos, music and the media, or by reliving the sights and sounds of the tragedy in their minds. Expect children to re-experience a degree of their original trauma on the anniversary of the original event.

The following behaviors may be indicators that a child may benefit from professional help:
• Sudden and pronounced change in behavior
• Threat of suicide or preoccupation with suicide, evidenced through artwork or writing
• Harmful acts to other children or animals
• Extreme confusion or incoherence
• Evidence of substance abuse – drugs, alcohol, etc.
• Sudden change in grades
• Avoidance or abandonment of friends
• Angry or tearful outbursts
• Self-destructive behavior
• Inability to eat or sleep
• Over-concern with own health or health of loved ones
• Giving away important possessions
• Sudden unexplained improvement in behavior or schoolwork
• Depression, isolation or withdrawal.

Activities that help kids express thoughts
and feelings

Helping children to establish a sense of order in an ever-changing and chaotic world is important. Not only do we want our kids to realize that they are survivors of a difficult event, but also that their lives still have continuity and meaning. Parents and educators working with traumatized children should keep to the daily routine as much as possible. This allows kids to feel a renewed sense of security.

Establishing family activities also has a reassuring effect on children. Preparing meals together, eating dinner as a family, reading stories aloud or playing family games can help to reestablish a sense of normalcy to kids’ lives. It is important to initiate safe places for kids to express their ideas. This can be done by finding quiet times at home, in the car or on a peaceful walk. Being with children without distractions can produce a comfortable climate to begin dialogue. Bedtime should be a reassuring time, too. Often this is the time children choose to talk about their worries. Parents can consider an increase in transition time, storytelling and book reading to create a peaceful, uninterrupted nighttime environment.

Hope for the future

Our children are living with fear, stress, anxiety and grief caused by events like bullying and gang violence, car crashes and natural disasters, school shootings and continuing war, physical or sexual abuse and hard economic times. One goal of trauma work with children is to restore safety and protection to all children who have experienced trauma within their homes, schools and communities. Another goal is to provide parents and youth workers with information, understanding and skills related to coping with the issues that created the trauma. With these tools, we can help our children become less fearful and more compassionate human beings, thereby increasing their chances of living in a future world of increased inner and outer peace.

Linda Goldman is a Fellow in Thanantology: Death, Dying, and Bereavement (FT) with an MS degree in counseling and Master’s Equivalency in early childhood education. She is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) and a National Certified Counselor (NBCC). She worked as a teacher and counselor and currently has a private grief therapy practice in Chevy Chase, MD. She works with children, teenagers and families and shares workshops, courses and trainings on children and grief and trauma and currently teaches as adjunct faculty in the Graduate Program of Counseling at Johns Hopkins University. She has also taught on the faculty at the U. of MD School of Social Work and lectured at many other universities including Penn State, Buffalo School of Social Work, University of North Carolina and The National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan, as well as numerous school systems throughout the U.S. She was named by the Washingtonian Magazine as one of the top therapists in the MD, VA, DC area (1998) and again as a therapist to go to after the terrorist attacks in 2001 and is the recipient of the “The Tenth Global Concern of Human Life Award 2007.”