”The pandemic itself,” said the presenter of last week’s Zoom training on trauma-informed care, “is a trauma for every single one of your students, in addition to the traumas many of them have already faced.” While this may be oversimplification, whether an event becomes traumatic or not depends as much on an individual’s interpretation of an injurious experience as much as it does on the experience’s objective nature, the broader point stands. The pandemic, its attendant economic crisis, Western wildfires, and a political culture of fear and violence have combined to give rise to an overall situation in which the rate of developmental traumas will occur at a far higher rate than has been seen even in the recent past.
The extent to which a frightening event becomes traumatic depends upon whether it overwhelms the coping skills and emotional resources a child possesses to encounter the adversity and deal with it successfully. A truly traumatic event will affect the way a child’s stress response system behaves. It can fundamentally shift one’s worldview. It can shatter one’s belief that the world is a safe place. When this happens, the stress response system becomes overactive. Believing that the world is mostly threatening, the brain must keep itself on the verge of fight-or-flight. Benign stimuli become perceived as threatening. The brain becomes bathed in the stress-hormone cortisol, useful in a truly life-threatening situation, but producing a mental state in which it is impossible to successfully navigate every day activities. The psychologist Mark Epstein writes, ” . . . injurious childhood experiences in and of themselves need not be traumatic(or at least not lastingly so) or pathogenic provided that they occur within a responsive milieu.” This means that we as parents, or educators, or community members, have the ability to mitigate the effects of trauma on our children.
As parents, we can be alert to behavioral change. Regressive behaviors are a clear signal that a child is struggling to cope with a stressor being placed upon them. In the face of a trauma they don’t know how to conquer, they might retreat to a behavior that brought them security and comfort at a previous developmental stage: they might want to be held or rocked or fed again. They might need the nightlight, or the teddy bear, or the thumbsucking that they’ve recently left behind. They might begin wetting the bed. They might want to revive attachment rituals that they’ve grown out of. Temper tantrums might manifest or increase in frequency. A clear sign that their emotional resources for coping with stress are depleted. Regardless of their awareness of events in the broader world, they can feel the stress in the air. It is ok to pause, consider which stressors you are able to remove from their life for the time being, and be attuned and responsive to the ways in which they act out their fears. It’s OK to honor these needs and meet them. The regressive behaviors will fade away as the needs for safety and security are met.
Matthew King lives with his fifteen-year-old son in Corvallis, Oregon, where he’s taught English for thirteen years. He also does advocacy work in the school district for children who have experienced trauma in early childhood. In his spare time he hikes, reads, writes, practices meditation, and watches his son ride dirt bikes. He welcomes comments and feedback and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org