It is estimated that one out of four children will experience trauma by age four. Trauma takes many forms, such as abuse, grief, medical crises, poverty, natural disasters, accidents, and violence. Research shows that childhood trauma can cause lasting physical, mental and emotional problems. How can we help?
Hearthstone School recently hosted a free program on understanding child trauma and practical ways to help those who have experienced it, presented by Donna Wilson-Peal of The Child Care Network/Child Care Aware of Northern Virginia. Staff and parents from Hearthstone School, teachers from The Child Care Learning Center, Emerald Hill School, plus individuals from the local community attended.
Wilson-Peal, who has a degree in Developmental Psychology, Elementary Education, and Early Childhood Education from Carnegie-Mellon University, started by asking the group to name various forms of child trauma.
The list was long: emotional, physical and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect, including poverty; parental separation or divorce (it was noted that this is not always traumatic, and depends on the situation); domestic or community violence; substance abuse or mental illness in the family; incarceration of a family member, and more. It was soon apparent that virtually any child can experience trauma, irrespective of family situation, race or economic status, although those in poverty are generally more vulnerable.
During trauma, Wilson-Peal explained, the “upstairs brain,” or “control center” of the brain shuts down; brain functions such as planning, reasoning, judgment, impulse control and empathy are temporarily suspended. The same may be true when a traumatic memory is triggered. The “downstairs brain” takes over, leading to “fight, flight or freeze” responses. Trauma may result in hyper arousal — which can manifest as hyper-vigilance, rage, racing thoughts or emotional volatility — or hypo arousal, which can show up as lethargy, numbness or extreme passivity.
Using case histories, Wilson-Peal described how a child’s trauma-based behavior may be misinterpreted as ordinary acting out or disrespect, and that normal disciplinary measures don’t work on traumatized children; in fact, they can make matters worse. She explained how trauma impacts school performance, and summed up with, “A brain in pain can’t learn.”
Happily, Wilson-Peal explained, we can teach children how to cope with the feelings they experience. One issue is that the traumatized child can’t think and feel at the same time. She described a number of activities for getting the “left brain” (logic, planning, etc.) and the “right brain” (imagination, feelings, creativity, etc.) to function together, such as “brain games” which can be found on the internet, and “crossing the midline” exercises, in which involve movement from the left side of the body to the right and vice-versa (example: right hand touches left ear.)
She reminded the group that traumatized children develop survivor behaviors, and gave teachers a variety of suggestions for dealing with a child in a crisis moment, such as speaking in a quiet, monotone voice, giving empathetic responses (“Help me understand how you feel,” “I care about you; how can I help?”) and helping the child identify feelings.
To create a supportive environment, she advised teachers to maintain routines, give choices, set clear limits for inappropriate behavior, give encouragement, provide a safe place for the child to talk, and to anticipate difficult times and give additional support. For family members and caregivers, she recommended minimizing the child’s exposure to media and watching the news together, encouraging physical activity, feeding the child a healthy diet, and seeking professional help as needed.
For more information about programs on helping children survive and thrive after trauma, visit thechildcarenetwork.org.