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#SELChat: Recognizing Trauma’s Many Faces

All of my life, I have heard my dad tell stories about the multiple heart attacks and regular hospital stays of his father. He recalls being told that he was the “man of the house” when he was just six years old. He carried the heavy weight of responsibility for looking out for his mother and two sisters. At that time, the family lived in a small town surrounded by extended family and friends. Even though my dad worked from the time he was in elementary school, the family was surrounded by a community of people who rallied around them when needed. 

Trauma has different faces. For some children, trauma looks like a parent in prison or on drugs.  For other children, trauma looks like a parent with a severe health issue. Even prolonged illness during this time of year can be frightening for a child. How do we, as caring adults, help little ones cope with big emotions?

 First of all, we need to acknowledge that whether a child is five years old or 17, they are still a child. A child needs the security and guidance of an adult to help them along their path. I realize this may sound elementary. However, many times in our fast-paced world with personalized technology, busy schedules, and tragic circumstances, kids are forced to grow up too soon. What they need more than anything is the reassurance that they are seen, known, valued, and loved, especially during times of uncertainty.

Secondly, they need to know that they do not have to figure it out on their own. Kids who have dealt with trauma over prolonged periods of time are often adept at isolating themselves, feeling a greater sense of independence than others their age. This is part of their fight or flight response. They reason, “Well, there’s nobody else who’s going to take care of this. I’ve got to do it myself.” Part of letting them know that they are seen, known, valued, and loved is reminding them that they are not alone and that together we can make a plan. We must not override their voice and choice. Instead, we ask guiding questions and work together to make a plan of action. 

Unfortunately, in our society, children’s needs can go undetected, whether because of a family’s privacy, transience, or both. Therefore, it behooves us as teachers, school counselors, administrators, afterschool personnel, cafeteria workers, custodial staff, bus drivers, and other parents to be mindful to check in with the children with whom we are in contact on a regular basis. A child coming to school with a disheveled appearance or a hungry stomach for several days in a row may be a sign of a serious problem going on at home. We must be careful not to pass judgment but respond with compassion and ask, “I wonder what’s going on with….?”

Here are some strategies for supporting a child who is dealing with instability at home:

1. Ask and listen ― Inquire about what is happening at home.  Then, also ask the child how he/she is coping.

2. Give space ― Even when a child does not willingly offer information, they still need our support.  Sometimes the best thing we can do is just be with them in their pain.

3. Point to the future ― Acknowledge how much it hurts while reminding them that they do have a future and a hope. 

Touching base with a high-five or a smile brings hope.  Sparking joy with fun activities reminds them that there is laughter in the world.  We cannot fix every problem. However, our goal is to help build resilience ― the ability to bounce back despite adversity.

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