When a trauma occurs—for anyone at any age—it calls into question key elements that we naturally depend on for survival: safety, control, and, as psychologist Albert Bandura defined it, our sense of self-efficacy. That refers to the belief in our ability to succeed in a specific situation—in the case of trauma, the ability to take action, protect yourself, and stay alive.
A traumatic event, however (whether a natural disaster or an accident or a premeditated act), challenges survivors to function without those crucial capabilities and in a world now proven to be dangerous and unpredictable. For children whose identities have not yet formed around a solid sense of capability and who depend on adults and authority figures, both short- and long-term anxiety resulting from trauma can devastate childhood and the rest of their lives. The plasticity of children’s brains makes them enormously susceptible to traumatic impressions, emotional scarring, and maladaptive coping mechanisms.
While taking cues from the way the adults around them manage stress, children develop their own unique trauma response through an individual neurophysiological experience. The lingering effects of that response can include an ongoing sense of threat and danger, sleep disruptions, emotional dysregulation, and mood disturbances. Further signs of trauma responses in children include the expectation that aspects of the trauma will recur in daily life, regression to an earlier developmental stage, and expression in play. For example, some children re-create the traumatic event while playing with sand or dolls, or they incorporate coping mechanisms into their games.
That same neuroplasticity that causes post-trauma symptoms, however, can also work to a child’s advantage: Their brains are quick to learn and able to form new neural pathways with great ease. Given the right circumstances, children have a unique opportunity to build and access resilience after traumatic events.
Children’s Responses to Trauma
After a traumatic event, a child follows one of four reaction trajectories:
- Chronicity: Symptoms of the trauma intensify and the child doesn’t function properly in everyday life (this can be permanent).
- Resilience: Symptoms are temporary; there is very little impairment.
- Recovery: Symptoms and suffering intensify, then gradually improve.
- Delayed distress: Modest intensification of symptoms and distress worsens with time.
The most desired trajectory is resilience, further defined as the ability to experience exposure to risk and maintain a positive degree of functioning. How can the adults who care about traumatized children encourage this process? Recent findings published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology inspire ideas for simple ways to help.
Suggestions for Helping Children Become Resilient
A team led by the psychology department at the University of New Orleans conducted a study with children related to levels of post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms after Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. True resilience, the results found, correlates to low symptoms and a high degree of risk exposure. The children who evidenced such resilience had a unique coping style. In particular, they rarely used avoidance as a coping mechanism. As avoidance is a hallmark of PTSD, this research highlights ideas and procedures that can help children develop resilience in the face of both low- and high-stress situations.
This might be achieved by emphasizing reliance in children by teaching them to engage in non-avoidant coping mechanisms, such as:
- Directly acknowledging the traumatic experience and what effects it had on the child. Children need to learn to accept, embrace, and tolerate the discomfort trauma creates. And they need to be taught to do so with a sense of strength and courage, which can come from looking at, rather than away from, the truth. Some children have difficulty finding words to express their response to a trauma. Alternatives to direct therapeutic talk include storytelling, sand play, drama/acting out, drawing, and even singing.
- Showing children why and how they can depend on their safety. Post-trauma processing offers many teachable moments. Using them to help children learn about what will keep them safe in the future helps them install a mental program that provides a sense of safety. This can include explaining how parents and other authority figures will protect the child, plus physically showing them nearby structures or programs that will ensure their safety in the event of a crisis.
- Engaging children in activities that allow them to protect themselves. Having a sense of being powerful rather than powerless is a major component of forming a solid and dependable identity. It also reduces anxiety because it offers a plan of action in the face of unexpected circumstances. For children this can translate into everything from knowing their own phone number to knowing how to dial 911 to knowing an escape route. Even asking a child to describe what he or she would do in an emergency can help develop a sense of feeling empowered, which is a chief component in the difference between resilience and PTSD.
- Modeling a positive stress response. Children learn from watching the adults around them. Showing children how to positively handle stressors and then engage in subsequent self-care activities designed to reduce, relieve, and eliminate stress (for example, breathing and relaxation exercises) teaches children to develop their own resources and processes for absorbing and transforming a variety of stress-producing situations.
We live in a world where traumas large and small occur every day. We also live in a world that rarely focuses collectively on how to approach and treat traumatic moments in our personal lives. We need future generations who function with resilience despite tragedy. When we teach such skills to children, we have an opportunity to increase resilience not only on a micro/personal level but on a macro/social level as well, which means we have the opportunity to change the course of the world’s future community one child at a time.