Monday, July 10, 2006

a child's reaction to trauma

from July 10, 2006's "Sun Herald"

SunHerald.comChildren may be detaching from pain
Circle of silence must be broken


BAY ST. LOUIS - Listeners of Mississippi Public Broadcasting's Rural Voices Radio probably remember the interviews with elementary school students from Coast Episcopal School in Pass Christian that ran this past winter.

The children who read essays on air for that program would often describe scenes of horrible loss in a monotone voice that sounded as if they were emotionally detached.

Dr. Jean Bellows, a child trauma expert from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, told an audience of about 30 at the Main Street Methodist Church in Bay St. Louis on Sunday that behavior like that could sometimes be a sign that a child is dissociating themselves from the actual trauma as a way of dealing with it.

While it may be a healthy sign of dealing with difficult events in a child's life, prolonged dissociation from the reality of a bad event is unhealthy, said Bellows, who was giving the second in a six-part series of lectures on mental health here on the Coast hosted by the Memorial Hospital Psychology Department.

"The problem becomes when people rely on the mechanism (of dissociation)," Bellows said.

For parents, Bellows said creating safe, comfortable environments for children to express themselves is the best way to help them understand their traumatic experiences. Children tend to withdraw from adults when going through difficult experiences.

"That's where our responsibility comes in: breaking these circles of silence," Bellows said.

Children need not express their fears and anxieties through speech alone, citing play, drawing and other creative endeavors as healthy outlets for children to open up in, Bellows said.

Above all though, Bellows stressed the importance of parents making sure they were dealing well with their own traumatic incidents, because children will look to them as examples.

"The most important thing when working with trauma is taking care of ourselves," Bellows said.

Some tips

Some hints for helping children cope with the aftermath of disaster:

  • Reassure children you will keep them safe.
  • Limit exposure to media, especially television, because children respond strongly to images, particularly disturbing ones.
  • Be aware that different age groups react differently to trauma. Younger children are particularly hard-hit by traumatic events.
  • Talk truthfully and calmly to children about what happened while keeping the last tip in mind.
  • Be patient, as children can take longer to deal with traumatic events by letting them ask lots of questions and patiently responding to what might seem like overly needy behavior.
  • Keep regular schedules and routines going whenever possible for things like mealtime, playtime and bedtime.
  • Communicate with all significant people in your child's life like schoolteachers, coaches, etc., to find out what the child is telling them about their trauma.
  • Sometimes having a child help out with things like food distribution to the needy or fundraising for charitable causes gives them a sense of empowerment that helps recovery.