I was 15, walking through my high school halls when my friend Jennifer ran up to me and said, “There was a school shooting in Colorado today!” Like every one of my peers that day, I was struck with the awful realization that bad things can happen to kids. I remember studying the eyes of my teachers and school counselors, wondering, “Do they know why this happened? ” Although the adults in my life must have addressed this horrific tragedy at some point, I can’t recall a single conversation about it.
I was a freshman in college when 9/11 happened. The school shut down, I went to my door room alone and watched the media cover one of the most devastating events in our recent history. Though this event would shake our understanding of the safety and security of our world for the rest of our lives, like the rest of my classmates, I was left without words to describe my fear or advice on how to deal with it.
On December 14, 2012, our nation was again shocked when an elementary school became the site for mass violence. The Sandy Hook Massacre would change the way children throughout the world experience their schools and their safety, yet no words were spoken that could make their understanding of these changes better. And the traumas don’t stop. As a nation, we’ve come to demand solutions to our pain – increased security, background checks, armed teachers, etc. – but we’ve not addressed and defined the sense of terror and trauma we feel at these events.
Perhaps years later we find ways to remember events like these in a way that doesn’t hit us with the raw horror and shock that it did at first, but, still, the silence continues, still we have not recognized the pain that these events cause our children and us as children.
As a society, we have a strange relationship to traumatic childhood experiences. Whether it’s the gigantic social traumas – school shootings, war, terror—or the gigantic personal trauma’s – death, physical and sexual abuse — we tend to rely on the media to talk about these issues, and we rarely have meaningful conversations about children’s trauma because we fear it.
We fear that talking about traumatic events will make things worse for kids (that the story itself will traumatize them all over again). We fear that we have no idea what “the right” thing to say could be (that we will reveal our own fear).
This is in part because when the words “child” and “trauma” are put together it often evokes a mixture of emotions. We want to protect our children, and when we are unable to do so anger, sadness, grief and fear can result. What we do with these feelings can either bring us to healing or to a place of anxiety and pain.
As understandable as this deep pain may be, it often compels us to do something very simple and very dangerous to our kids – we stay silent.
Though reports of children suffering are always shocking, instances of child trauma are a very prevalent part of our culture. Safe Horizons, a national child advocacy and trauma research organization, reports that:
-There are 2.9 million reports of child abuse each year in the United States.
– 1 in 10 children suffer from maltreatment
– 1 in 16 children suffer from sexual abuse
– 1 in 10 children are witnesses to family violence
I know and understand the heartache in reading these statistics. Our first response is often fear. “How do I keep my child from feeling this kind of pain?” Then anger; “What kind of person could hurt a child in this way?” Then hiding and secrecy — like the children we want to help and protect, we lack a language for communicating our pain.
When children see adults express fear about trauma or retreat into silence, they feel unsafe to talk about their own pain. Children also internalize their experience of adult fear, and it becomes very real and very scary.
I can remember a child telling me that he didn’t want to talk to his mom about the “bad things” that happened to him because he didn’t want to make her sad. Children have a natural need to protect those who protect them. If this little boy thought that his mom was sad because of him, this makes the pain worse. If a parent can acknowledge a painful feeling without the child feeling that it is his or her job to fix it, then the child feels safer moving through his own emotions.
Children often tell me that they don’t speak up to an adult because they are afraid of getting in trouble. This often happens because children may be told they cannot talk back to an adult instead of being taught the appropriate ways to talk to an adult or another person. Many times, I’ve heard children tell me, “I couldn’t tell an adult no because they were the boss.”
A child needs to know how to use her voice protect herself. If a child can’t speak up to those who he feels safest with, how will we expect him to speak up when he is with someone who is not safe?
When I work with children who have been exposed to a traumatic event the first thing I often do is give them language. Kids are born with a strong connection to feelings. I see this when my two-year-old has a meltdown over soggy cheerios. He is mad and he shows it!
So often kids have learned to shut down the feeling, to hide and not tell. This can happen when an adult says, “That is not something to be sad about” or “You are fine you don’t really need feel sad about that.”
The truth is my two year old doesn’t think he is fine because he does not have any tools to take care of the cheerio problem. When I tell him, “STOP this is not a good reason to cry,” he learns that he is wrong about his feelings. He also probably fears that he may get yelled at if he shows his emotion.
If given the chance and the language, children are capable of recognizing their feelings. When they know how to recognize them, then they can label the feeling and learn to express it in healthy and effective ways. If we want our children to have healthy relationships to their emotions, to us and to their changing world, we have to be willing to teach them these tools.
When a child is exposed to trauma they often feel a sense of guilt. They feel as if THEY are the problem and THEY have done something wrong. This is often why a child may keep silent in the event that something has happened to them. As parents, teachers, friends and family our responsibility is to talk about these issues with our children. We have to validate the courage it takes to talk to someone about pain and give them a safe place to move into healing.
My 4 year old son has become more convinced that monsters appear when it gets dark. When he gets up in the middle of the night and he’s scared and my normal reaction is, “Just go back to bed, you are fine,” he generally will become more sad and he will probably be up again in another hour or so.
Yet, if I can give him a little attention and say, “I know you feel scared, I am here for you and I am going to make sure you are safe,” or teach him a skill for when he is scared, then he typically will feel validated and stay in bed for the night. This principle works the same for the monsters that trauma can create in our memory.
The language that is often used in my office is play, art, pictures and clay. Sometimes pictures are drawn to express anger and sadness. Children often start by telling me about scary things that have happened to the characters in their picture or by smashing a bad guy made out of clay.
This gives me an opportunity to talk with them about anger. I find that kids often know how to fix a problem. When I talk with them about bullies they tell me multiple ways that they will defend themselves the next time. When we give our kids an outlet and the words to use they know better how to protect themselves.
Children are so capable of understanding and navigating their world when they feel safe and protected. When an adult can give a child space to express himself uniquely the child feels empowered and strong. This builds self-esteem and helps her believe that she can protect herself.
Whether you are a friend, a parent, an aunt, an uncle, a teacher or a neighbor, our children are watching us. Our experience of trauma will shape theirs.
We need to keep in mind that what scares us, scares our kids. It doesn’t matter if it is a national disaster that we see on the news or personal tragedy that creates indescribable pain. In either case, we must be willing to speak into the silence and show them how to tell the story.