This May Be The Best Way To Help Kids Who’ve Been Through Trauma

Author Article

Why do some children who experience trauma seem to recover naturally over time whereas others develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and even depression? A new studypublished in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry has identified one key factor: seeing their own emotional reaction as “not normal.”

Researchers assessed over 200 kids between ages 8 and 17 who’d experienced a traumatic event, such as a car crash, assault, or medical emergency. They interviewed the kids twice, once two to four weeks after the event and again two months after the event, asking them questions about how they’ve been coping with what happened. The kids also completed a survey about what their general emotional well-being and cognitive skills were like before the event had ever happened.

What does a “normal” healing process look like?

The study found PTSD symptoms were actually pretty common earlier in the recovery process, at the two- to four-week mark. “Symptoms of PTSD can be a common reaction to trauma in children and teenagers,” said Richard Meiser-Stedman, a clinical psychology professor at the University of East Anglia in England who led the study, in a news release. “These can include distressing symptoms like intrusive memories, nightmares and flashbacks. Health professionals steer away from diagnosing it in the first month after a trauma because, rather than being a disorder, it’s a completely normal response. … These initial reactions are driven by high levels of fear and confusion during the trauma.”

Generally speaking, though, the majority of the kids healed naturally over the course of the two months without any professional help or interventions.

How much social support they had in their lives and the presence of other life stressors didn’t actually affect their likelihood of having lingering PTSD symptoms. What did? It was the tendency to view their own response to the trauma as being abnormal, a sign of weakness, or a sign that they were “permanently damaged.” That self-judgment was the key predictor of PTSD.

“The young people who didn’t recover well, and who were heading down a chronic PTSD track two months after their trauma, were much more likely to be thinking negatively about their trauma and their reactions—they were ruminating about what happened to them,” Meiser-Stedman explained. “They perceived their symptoms as being a sign that something was seriously and permanently wrong with them, they didn’t trust other people as much, and they thought they couldn’t cope.”

That means one of the biggest ways we can support young people who are recovering from trauma is to normalize their pain. It’s vital to make sure they know that there is nothing wrong with feeling deeply distressed by what’s happened to them and that it will likely take some time before those emotions settle. Trauma certainly can change you, but it by no means “permanently damages” you.

The difference between ruminating and grieving.

Importantly, the study also found that “overthinking” the trauma was also linked to worse PTSD: “The children who didn’t recover well were those that reported spending a lot of time trying to make sense of their trauma. While some efforts to make sense of trauma might make sense, it seems that it is also possible for children to get ‘stuck’ and spend too long focusing on what happened and why,” Meiser-Stedman explained.

Past research has shown our minds generally have a tendency to ruminate on negative events, and that rumination can be disastrous for our mental health. The researchers were hesitant to give any recommendations related to how to process trauma since the risk of “overthinking” can lead to worse outcomes, but at the same time, not processing your pain at all is generally a ticket to growing up with unresolved emotional issues that lead to more reactivity, relationship problems, and poorer health as an adult.

Transformation coach Sheryl Paul offers a good way to understand the difference: Replaying scenes over and over from the negative events in our lives and thinking about why they happened isn’t necessarily the same as emotionally processing your trauma.

“Ruminating isn’t grieving. Thinking isn’t grieving,” she writes at mindbodygreen. “Grieving is an embodied experience that moves the pain out and through, whereas ruminating is a ‘head’ experience that keeps the pain stuck. Ruminating—that is, obsessively going around and around in your mind on one particular storyline, like thinking about what you or the other person did ‘wrong’—creates mental stagnation and prevents the grief from moving through you, thus preventing you from moving on.”

To help kids (or anyone) heal from trauma, make sure they know it’s OK to sit with their pain and feel it. They shouldn’t spend all their time dwelling on what happened—it’s important to be able to also resume life’s activities to be able to access a brighter mood again and reconnect with their other emotions—but normalizing the grieving process is absolutely necessary.

Childhood Trauma Exposure Is All Too Common

Author Article

A long-term study of 1,420 people finds that childhood trauma is more commonplace than is often assumed, and that its effects upon the transition to adulthood and adult functioning are not only confined to post-traumatic stresssymptoms and depression, but are more broadly based.

These conclusions were reported on November 9, 2018, by a team led by 2009 BBRF Young Investigator William E. Copeland, Ph.D., of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families at the University of Vermont. He and his colleagues are part of the Great Smoky Mountain Study, a study of children in 11 mainly rural counties in North Carolina.

Beginning in 1993 and continuing through 2015, the study annually observed 1,420 children, selected randomly from a group of 12,000 local children, through age 16, and again when they reached ages 19, 21, 25 and 30. Results are based on analysis of over 11,000 individual interviews. The sample was designed to over-represent frequently overlooked rural and Native American communities.

One striking perspective emerging from the study is that “it is a myth to believe that childhood trauma is a rare experience that only affects few,” the researchers say. Rather, their population sample suggests, “It is a normative experience — it affects the majority of children at some point.” A surprising 60 percent of those in the study were exposed to at least one trauma by age 16. Over 30 percent were exposed to multiple traumatic events.

“Trauma” for the purpose of the study included violent events (e.g., the violent death of a loved one, physical abuse or harm, war or terrorism, captivity); sexual trauma; witnessing a trauma that caused or could have caused death or severe injury; learning about a traumatic event involving a loved one; and other traumas, such as diagnosis with a serious illness, serious injury, or fire.

“Our study suggested that childhood trauma casts a long and wide-ranging shadow,” the researchers say, associated with elevated risk for many adult psychiatric disorders affecting many “important domains of functioning,” with impacts in the form of diminished health, financial and academic success, and social life.

The impact of trauma across the lifespan has been noted in many past studies. The newly reported study, appearing on the website of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), differed, because it followed children from year to year. Prior studies relied upon memory-based reports of childhood events made by participants during their adulthood, which tend to be less accurate. The new study also statistically compensated for the presence of other childhood factors that often co-occur with childhood trauma, such as poverty and family instability or dysfunction.

The researchers say their results are consistent with an “accumulation” model of trauma that assigns increased lifetime risk of psychosocial impact with each additional traumatic exposure during childhood. While they do not shed light on the question of which children are more likely to experience trauma, the team hopes the results will inform public policy, via “interventions or policies that broadly target this largely preventable cluster of childhood experiences.”

The research team included: E. Jane Costello, Ph.D., 2009 Ruane Prizewinner and 2007 BBRF Distinguished Investigator; and Edwin J.C.G. van den Oord, Ph.D., 2002 BBRF Independent Investigator.

For Childfree Women, the Personal is Political

Author Article

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Adi Avivi writes as follows:
The fourth and last construct presented in this discussion addresses the political aspects of child freedom. The construct’s title is drawn from the feminist mantra “the personal is political,” a phrase attributed to different writers of the second feminist wave. Although its exact origin might not be clear, its meaning is important. The phrase indicates that people’s personal decisions and private conduct have profound political implications. When a woman makes a decision regarding work, family, dress code, or choice of language, she is choosing to express her acceptance or rejection of social norms. This is, of course, a simplistic view, as the choice to perform similar acts can have different meanings for different people. For example, choosing to get married could be a defiant act if family or society disapprove of the pairing; marriage could also be an act of submission to the most rigid and oppressive social norms.

Intersubjective Theory: Social and Political Implications
Benjamin (1988) discusses the social and political implications of her intersubjective theory. She claims that in U.S. society, the narcissistic fear of surrendering one’s power over other humans is the source of political, social, and personal cruelty and oppression. Our society idealizes the father-image, which includes aspects of individualism, separation, and domination and devalues the mother-image of connectedness, closeness, and dependency. However, both needs exist in every human, regardless of their sex and gender. The masculine image requires men to maintain rigid separation from others, and in doing so, reject their need for connectedness and closeness. If they address these “feminine” needs, they will have to acknowledge their identification with the maternal. They, therefore, can only tolerate rigid definitions that will simplify their relationships with others. Such definitions help maintain hierarchy by engendering a sense of omnipotence among those who believe they are fitting the only permissible role in the absence of choices. Other options can be classified as deviant or in some cases rejected altogether or even declared illegal. Allowing others to be different but similar, close but separate, independent but needed is impossible when one depends on narcissism and a fantasy of omnipotence in order to maintain a coherent sense of self.
However, the other continues to exist. The participants expressed a desire to contribute to the growing knowledge about CF women, adding that they wanted their voices to be heard. They hoped to dispel misconceptions and misunderstanding, helping non-childfree individuals, policymakers, religious leaders, and mental health professionals to see childfreedom for what it really is: a diverse and rich community with culture and values, made up of individuals who cannot be fully understood or explained by their childfreedom alone.

Comments by Participants
They hoped that social acceptance would reduce the resentment and bitterness some childfree individuals felt while inviting people who might benefit from CF life to entertain it as an option:
S8: “On a less realistic note, I’d like to think that research like this is a big step in changing the way people talk to and about the childfree and the choice to reproduce. It would be nice if people asked ‘are you going to have kids?’ instead of ‘when are you going to have kids?’ and say ‘If you have kids’ instead of ‘when you have kids’. If the dreaded ‘bingo’ went away tomorrow, it would make life so much easier.”
S13: “I’m hoping to bring attention to the cruel and dismissive remarks (‘bingos’ and otherwise) we childfree experience on the Web and real life, and to dispel the myths behind the most common bingos. I hope research shows that we are just as human as the next woman, that there is nothing missing or wrong with us, and that parenthood is not for everyone nor should it be.”
S15: “I am eager to see more exposure of the experiences of those living childfree. My hope is that as information about CF living grows, that more young people will take the time to consider the choice to have children rather than just having kids without thought. So many people are brainwashed into thinking it’s a rite of passage…”
Most participants talked about being discriminated against or misunderstood, and those who did not feel this way still mentioned incidents in which they were met with bewilderment and disbelief. All participants reported that other childfree individuals they met online constantly talked about the discrimination, insults, and rejection they felt. This was especially true when the women were in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, if they had recently married, or if they lived in smaller, more rural locations.

Tolerating the “Other”
Allowing others to be different requires a capacity to tolerate pain, because seeing other options puts a spotlight on one’s limitations. This, according to Benjamin (1988), is true on the individual level, the community level, and the state and country level. Throughout history, the inability to tolerate the “other” and the need to make “me” the only option have pushed nations to wipe out other groups, to deny human rights, and to demand conformity explicitly and implicitly. Benjamin states that both patriarchal hegemony and some feminist worldviews demand that women be mothers and color the maternal role as the source of feminine power. If a woman is not a mother, the patriarchal social order is in danger. Also, the unique power of reproduction as a defining symbol of female supremacy is threatened when capable individuals live fulfilling lives without reproducing. However, the participants of this study conveyed that having childfreedom as an equal option will not ruin humanity or take away feminine power. In fact, it will allow for the definition of what is human to be expanded and offer greater choice for women.
For example, some participants expressed moral and political concerns, saying that while the pronatalist culture ostensibly focuses on children, it actually centers on the concept of future children rather than already living children who are in need. When thinking of the consumption of resources created by every Western child in comparison to children in Third World countries, the moral implications of pronatalism in industrial countries is disconcerting. Promoting motherhood as the preferred choice for everyone is actually a failure to recognize the needs of millions of other, less visible children, in communities whose resources are often abused by Western countries.
Indeed, public and political forces are involved in reproduction. That involvement manifests in campaigns around abortion rights and access, controversy over economic entitlements, workplace policies and employment benefits, and religious freedoms. Because the CF choice is not valued or even accepted in many cases, CF women suffer discrimination both socially and legally. For example, sterilization laws in many places do not support women’s desire to cement their childfreedom (Richie, 2013).

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