Trauma: Navigating Uncharted Waters
The last several months have been unlike anything anyone could have imagined. It is hard to believe that in such a short amount of time, we went from teaching in classrooms, jet setting to countries around the world, and hugging our families with ease, to lockdowns, social distancing, masks, and a host of other measures that have changed the way we live. To say the least, it has been a traumatic experience that has required each of us to navigate uncharted waters. It is also something that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. Without a doubt, 2020 will be remembered for generations to come.
The challenge of going through such distressing and uncertain times is the emotional response that tends to follow. An event as traumatic as the pandemic has the ability to greatly impact an individual’s sense of safety and peace of mind for years to come. Even long after the pandemic eases, individuals may continue to experience a wide range of emotions such as fear, hopelessness, anxiety, irritability, and anger. While this pandemic has clearly affected some people more than others, largely those living in poverty, very few have been left unscathed. As educators, parents, colleagues, and friends, it is critical that we are aware of the overall impact this recent trauma has caused so that we can support those who may need it the most. In particular, we are talking about children.
Not all Trauma Looks the Same
Let’s get technical for a moment to understand the scope of trauma in a little more depth. To begin, trauma can be described as overt or covert (Recovery Direct, 2020). Overt trauma is the simplest to address, as it is noticeable and easy to identify. This might include losing a loved one due to the virus or losing job and food security due to the lockdown. These examples are impossible to ignore and can have devastating consequences for those who are impacted. On the other hand, covert trauma can be more difficult to address, as the trauma experienced might be harder to identify. Individuals might initially feel disappointment or frustration without realizing the deeper emotional effect. This might include time spent away from family members, cancelled weddings and graduations, and switching to emergency online schooling.
Another form of trauma is known as vicarious trauma. While this is not discussed as much in the psychology literature, it has the potential to be just as harmful. Children and adolescents, who are still developing emotionally, are especially prone to this type of trauma. A perfect example are the constant fear narratives that can be heard on the radio and television, and spread on social media sites. As well, many households are filled with conversations about every aspect of the pandemic. Whether we realize it or not, children are taking all of this information in. The more fear based it is, the more traumatic it can be. Therefore, it is important that we be mindful of the information that our children are exposed to, as well as the way in which they receive the information.
Regardless of the definitions, the majority of us have had some level of trauma over the past several months. In turn, our experiences have greatly impacted our well-being. Therefore, it is crucial that we keep this front of mind as children return to school. We will only know the full scope of trauma that they have incurred once we get them back in the classroom and find a way to discuss this collective experience.
Trauma in Children: What to look for
There are several “look fors” when it comes to trauma in children, as many of them do not have the vocabulary to fully explain how they feel. Furthermore, they may not be able to recognize their feelings, as complex emotions can be very difficult to comprehend at a young age. Additionally, without being able to recognize or verbalize their feelings, trauma can easily manifest in the body. Possible “look fors” include overeating, sleep disturbances, separation anxiety, irritability, aggression, hyperactivity, headaches, inattention, and social problems. Children may also demonstrate repetitive/post-traumatic play, where they re-enact the traumatic events during play-time (Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation, n.d.). Unfortunately, many of these symptoms can be misinterpreted for other issues such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is why it is so important to be able to recognize the wide range of possible symptoms related to trauma, so that children can receive the appropriate support that they need.
Another critical point worthy of mention is that we must address the cause of trauma based on the developmental level of the child (Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation, n.d.). Although it is very important to engage in conversation surrounding trauma, giving too much information or too many details related to the pandemic may result in re-traumatization. Instead of moving towards a place of recovery, the child may begin to develop new fears and anxieties. Conversely, not giving enough information to a child who is old enough to understand what is happening, can create more problems as they try to fill in the gaps themselves.
It is important to remember that trauma can come in many different forms and is highly individualized. The events of the pandemic might be more traumatic for one person and less so for another. However, what we do know is that a traumatic event that happens early on in a child’s life can be especially devastating, even more so if they do not have the right support in place. As of late, there have been many reports of children living in homes where food is scarce, domestic violence or substance abuse is carried out, or a loved one has committed suicide. That is a lot for a child to live through and process, especially when they have been disconnected from their teachers, friends, extra-curricular activities, and so forth. Therefore, when we are able to recognize and understand how a child expresses their trauma experiences, the more we are able to seek the right support for their healing.
When children repress emotions early on in life, it has the potential to create long-lasting effects. By encouraging and engaging children in discussion about their feelings surrounding the pandemic, we are creating a safe space in which to foster their growth and development. The impact of the pandemic has extended far beyond what anyone could have imagined. Although it may seem difficult to address at times, it is essential for building community and social connections when returning to the classroom.
Trauma in Children: How to respond
A factor that greatly influences the experience of trauma is the response of the caregivers and other important adults in the child’s life. In terms of the pandemic, these responses may be fear-based or based on the belief that everything will be okay. Both have an impact on how the child will feel themselves and also how they will react and speak to other people around them.
Returning to school this fall will be a challenging time for students, parents, teachers, and school staff, and being able to create a discussion surrounding trauma and the pandemic will be important for creating a safe and supportive environment. This could be done by asking the students how they felt being away from school, how they feel returning to school, what they are most concerned and most excited about, what they learned while being at home, etc. One-on-one discussions, group conversations and activities, and quiet self-reflection are all ways in which we can encourage emotional expression. With all of this being said, it is important to remember that most children who experience a traumatic event will recover, and will most likely develop new skills and emotional strengths (American Psychological Association, 2011).
Using movement based activities is a great way to get children to pay attention to how their bodies feel in times of stress, and is also a great outlet for releasing negative or intense emotions. Encouraging students to use dance and drama as a tool to express how they are feeling is very helpful, especially if they are not able to put their feelings into words. It may also make the students feel more comfortable engaging their friends, teachers, and family in a conversation about the difficult times they have been experiencing. Next week, we will be discussing this topic in more detail. We will bring attention to what it means to be a trauma-informed teacher, as well as how you can use this information to create a safe environment for your students.
American Psychological Association (2011). Children and Trauma. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/children-trauma-update
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (n.d.). Trauma. Retrieved from https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/trauma
The Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (n.d.). Trauma Signs and Symptoms. Retrieved from https://www.ecmhc.org/tutorials/trauma/mod3_1.html
Recovery Direct (2020). Overt vs Covert Trauma [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BKAmcM4g20