Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tips for Recognizing Trauma, Helping Children Build Resilience

The statistics are both surprising and disturbing--as many as two of every three children age 16 and younger have been exposed to at least one traumatic event, with consequences that can affect their development, learning, and behavior.

Traumatic experiences can range from a one-time incident, such as the sudden death of a loved one or a natural disaster, to ongoing exposure to experiences like bullying or family violence. Studies have found that the effect on a child’s mental and social development can vary, from a diminished ability to focus and solve problems to long-term difficulties with academic performance, low self-esteem, and relationships with others.

Identifying that a child has experienced trauma is not always easy because emotional and behavioral responses to trauma vary depending on a child’s personality, the type and severity of the incident, the availability of adult support, and other factors. A child may suddenly lose control of his or her emotions, or show no outward changes at all. Because of their age, younger children may have even more difficulty talking about a traumatic event and what they are experiencing.

Still, there are behaviors that could be signs that a child is having difficulty dealing with a traumatic event, such as:
  • Separation anxiety or clinginess toward teachers or caregivers
  • Changes in appetite
  • Decreased interest in and/or withdrawal from friends or family and normal activities
  • Over- or under-reaction to physical contact, sudden movements, and sounds
  • Angry outbursts and/or aggression
  • More frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue
  • Repeatedly recreating the event through comments, drawings, or activity
  • Emotional “numbing,” or expressing no feelings at all about the event
What can teachers, caregivers, and other adults do to help a child who has experienced trauma? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers these suggestions:
  • Maintain usual routines
  • Make sure that the child is not being isolated
  • Provide a safe place where the child can talk about the incident
  • Be sensitive to potential environmental cues that may cause a reaction (e.g., an approaching storm or the anniversary of an event)
  • Warn the child in advance of a change in routine or other event that could be unsettling
  • Monitor what information the child shares with other children to prevent excessive curiosity from peers
  • Nurture the child’s positive self-view
With support, many children can recover quickly from the fear and anxiety caused by a traumatic experience. But others may need more help over a longer period of time, both to recover and to build resilience that can help them when they face challenges in the future.

To learn more about early childhood trauma and its effects on young children, contact Child Care Aware® of Central Missouri.  Information is also available online from SAMHSA’s website.

These resources provide more detailed information on the types of traumatic events that can affect children; how exposure to traumatic events may change a child’s academic, emotional, and mental development; strategies for helping a child deal with trauma; and additional resources regarding treatment and prevention.

With the support of caring adults, children can recover from traumatic events, reestablish a sense of well-being, and obtain treatment and other services if needed. The more you know about trauma and children, the more you can do to help them.

Posted with permission from SAMHSA.

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