The death of a parent is a trauma for a child or teen. A parent is a child’s first attachment, first love, the person they depend on for their very survival and often it is the very person to whom they would turn to for support after a loss.
The dictionary defines trauma as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Behavioral health professionals more broadly define trauma as resulting “from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being”
Traumatized children fill our classrooms and our neighborhoods. Nearly 35 million U.S. children have experienced one or more types of childhood trauma. In a nationally representative survey of 12- to 17-year-old youth, 8 percent reported a lifetime prevalence of sexual assault, 17 percent reported physical assault, and 39 percent reported witnessing violence. Almost half the nation’s children have experienced at least one or more types of serious childhood trauma, according National Survey of Child’s Health. This translates into an estimated 34,825,978 children nationwide, say the researchers who analyzed the survey data. Even more concerning, nearly a third of U.S. youth age 12-17 have experienced two or more types of childhood adversity that are likely to affect their physical and mental health as adults.
While traumatic loss and traumatized children come from all communities and backgrounds, children living in densely populated urban areas are more at risk for having to cope with multiple, chronic traumatic loss and often daily traumatic stress. Over the past few years we have worked with a number of agencies, schools, and families from Newark at our center in Mountainside. As we did, it quickly became quite clear that Newark, like many other inner cities, is a grief support desert. But that is about to change. Imagine will be expanding our trauma-informed grief support programs into Newark in the coming year thanks to a grant from the NY Life Foundation and partnerships with agencies serving Newark youth.
Last week on 60 Minutes Oprah talked about childhood trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their long term impact on the future mental, emotional and physical health and well-being of children. ACEs compromise children’s ability to do well in school and in life and can have a lifelong impact on future health outcomes, emotional stability, mental health, success in school or success at work.
From our broader perspective, Oprah was talking about childhood loss. Not just loss due to death, but also the loss of innocence and safety in childhood due to physical or sexual abuse or domestic violence, or the loss of one’s home, the loss of a parent due to addiction or depression, the loss of our hopes and dreams for a child due to a diagnosis of autism, disability, a birth defect, or a chronic illness. Loss also includes the loss of a marriage, a parent’s divorce, abandonment, a job loss, relationships ending, being bullied, moving to a new neighborhood, etc. The list goes on. All of these types of losses, especially when a child experiences more than one, can be the cause of traumatic stress for children and teens.
Youth coping with trauma or loss of any kind are at risk for unhealthy or destructive ways of coping with their feelings. They are more at risk for substance abuse, depression, suicidality, poor health, and poor performance in school, and the resulting traumatic stress can disrupt a child’s brain development and increase the risk of both short-term and long-term physical, social, and emotional issues. However, a death or other trauma does not have to leave a child traumatized, IF they get support.
Our hope and vision for our program in Newark, as in Mountainside, is that through a systemic change process, it will not only help those directly impacted by loss, but will also help other children and adults and other programs, who will benefit by having this type of intervention and prevention program in their community. Our goal is to be part of the Newark transformation by addressing what is perhaps one of the root causes kids are not living up to their potential – addressing their unseen, unacknowledged, unsupported grief and trauma.
The good news is that most children are remarkably resilient, and we have the opportunity to help children become even more resilient . Resiliency is not something you’re born with or not born with, it’s a process that can be learned. Additionally, the effects of traumatic experiences can be lessened if children receive comfort and support. The first important step is to change how we view children’s behavior. (For example, I always say my brother and I weren’t bad kids after our dad died, we were sad kids, but no one thought to ask and try to understand what had changed to cause us to be acting out in such destructive or unhealthy ways. We were traumatized kids.) It is essential to switch from observing children through the lens of “why are they acting that way” to asking ourselves “what happened” that is causing children (and adults!) to be unable to control impulses, to strike out in anger, to retreat or shut down. We have to look behind the behavior to understand what is happening internally in the child to motivate that behavior.
Some strategies for helping traumatized children is to create calm, predictable environments and transitions between activities; to praise publicly and criticize privately; and to help children develop mindfulness strategies when they are triggered, such as deep breathing or counting to ten. This, combined with the consistent presence of caring adults in the child’s daily life—are proven to mitigate the impact of traumatic experiences on children. The single most important thing that helps a grieving and traumatized child is the active involvement of at least one, preferably more, caring, functional adults in their life.
Imagine’s trauma-informed peer grief support model incorporates all of the elements designed to support traumatized children coping with post-traumatic stress and children who are “simply” grieving the death or illness of a parent or brother, sister, or other family member or friend. If children get support at the time of their loss, from both peers and caring functional adults in their community, the more likely they are to grow up emotionally healthy and able to lead meaningful and productive lives.
“Traumatic experiences can lead children and adolescents to be more compassionate, to work harder to make the world better and safer, and to do something valuable with their lives.”
– National Child Traumatic Stress Network
The caveat to that quote is all that is possible IF they get support and understanding and are given the tools needed to manage their traumatic stress behavior. Thanks to Oprah for shining a spotlight on childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences, those of us working in the field feel much for confident that the lens through which we view children’s behavior will change and that the responses and approaches used will be trauma-informed and appropriate for all children in our programs. We feel excited and optimistic that the studies and work being done in this field, often in silos, will now receive the widespread awareness and commitment to change that our children so desperately need.
“From the moment life begins, human growth depends on accepting and mastering loss. The alternative to feeling loss in our gut is to risk irreversible damage to the life that remains.”
– Lily Pinkus
Please visit this link to view more grief resources for supporting children coping with traumatic loss. We especially recommend that article on ACEs Too High and the Sesame Street piece on Tools to Build Resilience in Children.