“They’ll be fine. They’re young. They’ll get over it. They won’t even remember. They just need to toughen up.” I have heard people refer to children like this many times, but it is not completely accurate. Many people assume that children are highly resilient and adaptable. Are children really resilient? Of course they are. People in general are resilient. We can endure and overcome heart-wrenching challenges, especially with the support of others. We often become stronger, better people from it. However, just because a person is young does not mean that they can escape unscathed from any situation. On the contrary, children may become more traumatized than an adult might during a given experience. Why?
Children’s Brains are Developing and Impressionable
Because children are impressionable, trauma can have a long-lasting impact on them. Their brains are still developing, so trauma can have a greater effect on their malleable brains than an adult’s brain that is no longer developing. Makes a lot of sense, right? Neuroscientists have literally found how trauma can leave its imprint on their developing brains through brain imaging. There are other things to consider as well. Children have not had the life experiences to teach them that traumatic experiences are an exception and not the rule. They have not developed as many coping skills as an adult might have. They do not have as much control over their life situation and support systems as an independent adult does. Maybe they were traumatized by someone who was supposed to be a support to them. The idea that because they are children they will be fine is a sad myth for these reasons and others.
So why does the myth that children will be fine, forget, or easily get over the traumatic event exist? Perhaps people believe that children will be fine because children do not have long conversations and express themselves verbally the same way adults do. Hence, adults may not hear about it, or if they do it could be through a couple fleeting comments. Children may act out (or even “act in”) instead of speaking out. “Acting in” in can include internalizing situations, feeling guilty or blaming themselves, become depressed or self-harming themselves. Perhaps the myth exists because children can continue playing and laughing despite their significant emotional challenges. Just like adults, smiling doesn’t mean they aren’t traumatized by something. Perhaps adults think that they are too young to understand or to be aware of what is going on or too young to remember. Whatever the reason, Children are often more aware than we think they are, so it is often wise to be aware of what we say and do around them.
What Can Be Traumatic for Kids?
Perhaps the myth exists because we as adults don’t think a certain event should be traumatizing. First, we need to understand what trauma is. Trauma is exposure to a threat of harm and can be something obvious like being sexually abused or witnessing a death or being in a tornado. While children may or may not not become traumatized in the sense of developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, children can also experience some stress symptoms over “smaller” situations. One doctor said that dog bites and parents in the hospital are often overlooked examples of stress and trauma for young kids. Other examples could include witnessing a car on fire while driving down the freeway, seeing a scary movie or advertisement that seems so real to them, or witnessing domestic violence three years ago even though the family is happy and healthy now. Children can exhibit signs of stress during or after divorce, even though we may think they weren’t involved in or aware of the details of it. We might tell them to toughen up because it’s just “teasing,” but being bullied can be traumatic. Going to the doctor’s office can be traumatizing (I think we all agree on that one). Regardless of the reasons we sometimes assume differently, children can become traumatized and there are signs of post-traumatic stress to look for.
Signs of Stress and Trauma
Children can respond in a variety of ways to stress and trauma. Sometimes they become obviously distressed when they have reminders of the trauma. They may become avoidant or withdraw from certain people or situations. Children may make comments to you about something that happened, or you may recognize signs of trauma in their play or artwork. They may play something recurrently. Some children have increased nightmares. Maybe you know they often think about the bad memories. Other children become oppositional, defiant or have temper tantrums when they are traumatized. You may notice they are more irritable. Others have symptoms similar to ADHD and act impulsively or have difficulty concentrating. Some children exhibit regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting again. Children may startle easily. If you think that your child may have symptoms of traumatic stress, a mental health therapist that specializes in working with children may be helpful. A therapist can assess what they are experiencing, help teach skills to deal with their anxiety, and help them process and overcome the trauma.
Hope, Healing, and Support
Thankfully, that same developing brain means that they have a tremendous capacity to grow and heal. Whether the stress is major or minor, children can overcome. Research has found that having supportive adults (such as parents) is the most important part in children overcoming trauma and stress.
“The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.” -Bruce Perry, p. 230
So what can you do if your child is exhibiting signs of being stressed or traumatized? Empathize with your child and spend time with your child talking or playing. This means really take the time to listen without jumping to conclusions or trying to fix the problem right away. Just like an adult, children want to feel understood and validated. Only after this happens can we move onto problem solving. Often we will get more information than we would otherwise if we kept our initial assumptions and charged ahead.
Establishing safe and loving routines is invaluable. They need that stability. When children know what to expect then their life can hopefully go back to being normal. Children’s brains can start learning from all the safe repetitions that safety is expected, not scary situations.
If you are at a loss as to what to do next, this could mean that it is time to seek help from a licensed professional. A therapist can help assess what is going on and create helpful interventions to help your child use his or her inner strength and rebound from the stress.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended to assess trauma or provide therapeutic services. If you or your child is exhibiting signs of stress that is disruptive of life, seek help from a licensed professional.
Perry, B. (2008). The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook. New York: Basic Books.