A “trauma” may be defined as…
– A serious injury or shock to the body, as from violence or an accident.
– An emotional wound or shock that creates substantial, lasting damage to the psychological development of a person, sometimes leading to clinical problems.
-An event or situation that causes great distress and disruption.
Life is full of ironies, and one of them is that while trauma can devastate someone’s life, it can also be one of the most positive events for people as well. By the end of this article you should have a better grasp of how to prepare for trauma, because chances are you or a family member will experience trauma in your life. Preparing for trauma is a winning strategy, while living in fear of trauma or trying to ensure your child is never in danger of being traumatized are losing strategies, given the statistics.
You may have learned about trauma by listening to news about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. PTSD is a psychological condition that can occur is someone is traumatized. Trauma has been more openly discussed ever since we have realized how many military personnel develop PTSD after they have been on the battlefield.
In my work as a therapist and counselor with traumatized children and adults , I have noticed there are dramatic differences in how well some children/adults bounce back from traumatic events. My “in the trenches” observation is being corroborated by over 20 years of well-established research. The question we as adults or parents must ask ourselves is what characteristics can help us be more resilient? And just being resilient is not necessarily the ultimate goal. What do I mean? There is also evidence that even traumas caused by events such as heart attacsks, motor vehicle accidents, and near death experiences can inspire people to undergo amazing positive transformation In other words, trauma can help you grow in ways you might otherwise not have grown. I have seen this countless times as a counselor working with even severely abused children.
Some researchers like Tedeschi & Calhoun (1996) have evaluated the ways in which people may undergo significant positive transformation, and what we find is changes in self perception, interpersonal relationships, or basic philosophy of life can all change.
Specific changes include those such as cancer patients feeling stronger and more self assured. And after a person successfully copes with one trauma, their “hardiness’ may generalize to future distress they may encounter.
At the same time, for adults or those of us who are parents, the idea of a family member or child being traumatized can be terrifying. Insurance companies prey on our fears of what could happen and we put major money into preparing for the worst. But we do not put nearly as much investment into building psychological skills sets.
Counselors and therapists like myself are still learning what characteristics are the best predictors of who will be more resilient to trauma, but the list is becoming clearer over time.
Here is a list of five core elements that Lord and O’Brien found are exhibited by those who are more resilient in the face of trauma. Their review of the literature is used by the National Victim Assistance Academy (March 2010) to train those who work with traumatized persons. Each of the five elements also has facets contained within it, and I then created a quote representing what a person with each quality would typically say. That way you can match that quote with what you or your child might say, and determine if that area needs further developing.
1. Self-knowledge and insight
“I like and respect myself in spite of my limitations”
-A strong inner locus of control (Waite and Richardson, 2004).
“I have control over how I feel, think, and behave”
-Becoming more independent
“I can handle even difficult challenges on my own if necessary”
2. A sense of hope.
“I am generally positive and can reframe negative things from a positive perspective”
Sense of humor
“Even when things get difficult, I can retain a sense of humor”
3. Healthy coping
Know what your typical physical stress reactions
“I usually get really tired when I am stressed out”
Develop calming and modulation techniques
“I can calm myself using techniques when I feel my life is out of control”
Know when you need a change of pace
“When I stop wanting to go to work, I know I need to take some time off”
4. Strong relationships
Develop longer term attachment to others
“Healthy people have people they can count on when they are down”
Seek support when you need it
“When I am sad I know I should talk with someone instead of stuffing it inside of me”
5. Personal perspective and meaning
Cultivate morality and integrity
“I have the courage to do what is right even when that means making hard choices”
“I have a reference point for even difficult decisions”
Develop a coherent life meaning
“I choose a set of values and consistently live by them”
Develop a sense of the greater meaning of life
“I believe there is a greater good and I am contributing to it”
Tips for parents
-The previous list will change over time as we obtain more research, but post this on your refrigerator as a start, your child’s life may just be dramatically better because of your focus on this information!!
-Understand one of the leading predictors of how your child will respond to trauma is how you as a parent respond to trauma. Monitor yourself closely and see how you respond to stress, and look to develop a style where you manage stress using a healthy variety of coping mechanisms. Healthy coping mechanisms include humor, verbalizing feelings, focusing on how normal it is to feel stress, staying positive, etc. Unhealthy coping methods include dissociating (pretending the event never happened), holding feelings in [suppressing], and over relying on the cowboy mentality that you need to JUST get over it.
-Recognize how important it is to help your child understand that courage is not absence of anxiety, worry, sadness, etc, but the management and/or mastery of these via skill sets we learn over time. Focus on helping your child develop a spacious toolbox of emotional and behavioral skills to deal with trauma/stress, instead of just hoping they will never get hurt.
-Tell your children stories about difficult things you have been through, and what strategies you used to handle those difficulties. Children learn much more from stories than from lectures. This storytelling will strengthen your bond with them. Start this with them when they are as young as 6 or 7 years of age.
-Since an adults ability to move beyond traumatic events may depend heavily on how they learned to cope with stress during childhood, adults should be aware of what style of coping they may have internalized from their parents.
-When a child is hurt, remain as calm as possible and reassure them but do not talk about how much they must be hurting. Too many parents focus on the physical wound, rather than being “solution focused” and on normalizing what happened (e.g., “People get bit by scorpions everyday, and you will be ok”)
-Understand that some children may externally look like they have not been affected, but internally may feel very scared or hurt. To help them cope with their distress, learn to look for even subtle signs that they may feel bothered by an event. Find ways to help them feel comfortable opening up so they process burdensome thoughts/feelings.
-Realize that research suggest that in the immediate aftermath of disasters, those most at risk are people whose mental status is either too good to be true (looking happy) or those who look deeply destabilized. Common symptoms that may suggest you or your child may need therapy include having continuous flashback memories of the event, persistent anxiety or sadness, or persistently feeling scared something else bad may happen.
-When friends of the family are traumatized, talk with your kids or friends about what you can do for them. This will help your friendship community or children recognize how important social support is, both for others, and if they are ever traumatized, for them.