He doesn’t remember the walk home from school. The confrontation. The punch. Falling back, his head striking the electrical box. Another punch, and another.
The beating left AJ with a level three concussion, vision problems, slurred speech and no memory of the incident—or the 14 years that came before.
Monique Young, AJ’s mom, says her son went to bed early after the attack. When she went to wake him the next morning, “he barricaded himself in his room because he didn’t know who I was; he didn’t know where he was,” she recalls.
Six months of therapy fixed AJ’s physical symptoms, but he had to rely on loved–ones-turned-strangers to help him relearn what a dog is, what a hamburger is called, how birthdays are celebrated. He turned 15 a couple of months after it happened. “We got a cake for him,” Young says, “and we brought it out, and we lit the candles, and he kind of looked at all of us, and he goes, ‘Why would you set a cake on fire?’”
Classic symptoms of PTSD
Though AJ doesn’t remember the beating that took all those memories from him, he still has nightmares about it two and a half years later. “He just has learned to stay up and function on no sleep,” shares Young. “There was a period of him saying he was sleeping, and then I discovered that he’s actually not been asleep for two days, to avoid the nightmares.”
He also avoids crowded spaces, like the mall or concerts. Young says if they’re at Subway and a couple of tough-looking men walk in, AJ will tense up and whisper, “Mom, look at those guys—are they going to hit me? Are we safe?”
“I can’t even imagine what he’s thinking sometimes,” Young says. “He’ll be 18 in January, and it’s still a constant, ‘Is somebody going to do something to me when I go out?’”
The extent of AJ’s traumatic memory loss is exceptional, but his anxiety, his nightmares—those are classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. We’re quick to associate PTSD with battle-scarred soldiers or victims of abuse, yet especially for children, what constitutes “trauma” is broad and highly individualized. An event that seems trivial to one child might rock another kid’s world for weeks, months or even years, possibly into adulthood.
How do you protect a child from something like that? In a way, you can’t. As much as we cling to what tendrils of control we have over the chaos in our lives, as much as we surround our children with the trappings of security and try to guard them from life’s sharp edges—stuff happens. Thunderstorms rattle our foundations. Beloved pets die. A virus sends the world into lockdown. In some things, we are powerless.
But we do have control over our response to trauma—even before it happens—and experts say that can be just as powerful an influence on a child as the event itself. Though we can’t necessarily protect our kids from trauma, we can prepare them for it, and be emotionally available to meet their needs as they heal.
How Kids’ Brains Function After Trauma
With trauma experts, “It depends” is a common refrain. Everything about trauma is subjective, including how traumatic stress manifests in a child. Plus, what we know about trauma and how it affects the body is still evolving.
“What research is showing us is that when trauma happens, it gets stored in our body,” says licensed professional counselor Kelsey D’Amore, founder and co-owner of Connect To Thrive in Plano. “So that’s why kiddos will have tummyaches, why they’ll have headaches, why they may get sick and throw up or why they may lose control of their bowels.”
Mentally, trauma jacks up our levels of cortisol, thrusting the brain into survival mode—the proverbial fight, flight or freeze. “When we experience that cortisol and adrenaline, that’s the same thing that zebras feel when they’re trying to run away from lions,” D’Amore says. “So if we’re feeling that way 24/7, we’re exhausted, and we’re irritable, and our brain can’t work the way that we need it to.”
Kids with PTSD continue acting out of that “primal brain,” the one programmed for survival, long after the event. “With post-traumatic stress disorder, what it does is it hijacks the neural pathways in your brain,” explains Molly Davidson, a training specialist at Texas Christian University’s trauma-focused Karyn Purvis Institute for Child Development. “The amygdala part of your brain is the smoke detector, so it’s the part of your brain that stands constantly for threat, and it is on high alert all the time.”
That’s one of the signal differences between PTSD and other trauma responses: The brain doesn’t return to standard operating procedures after a few weeks or months. Instead, like AJ, the child remains captive to the base instincts aroused by that event. They’re plagued by intrusive flashbacks or nightmares, and they might struggle with insomnia, anxiety or low self-esteem. These symptoms are severe enough to interfere with their daily life. In AJ’s case, it’s turned him into more of a homebody, and his family moved from Little Elm to Frisco because driving down the street where they lived—where the attack happened—made him anxious.
Kids with severe but short-term symptoms may have acute stress disorder instead of PTSD; anxiety disorders and depression can also result from trauma.
The challenge for parents is recognizing the symptoms for what they are: a cry for help.
“Kids use behaviors to signal how they feel,” Davidson says. “They’re not able to use their words when they’re in distress a lot of times.” Instead, they may act out, withdraw or even regress, which the experts say has been a common reaction to the stress of the pandemic.
“For instance, if you have teenagers in your house who typically wouldn’t need you as a caregiver to help them regulate [their emotions], all of a sudden they might be acting almost immature, like, ‘Why are you acting like that? You’re acting like a baby,’” says Davidson. “Well, when we get stressed, sometimes that’s what we want—we want to be cared for in that way.”
Other times, the behavioral tells are subtler or more mundane. “[AJ] does something that’s kind of peculiar that makes him feel safe. He will put his hoodie over his head, and that’s kind of my signal that he’s uncomfortable,” Young reveals. “You know when you have a small baby, and they put the blanket over their head and they’re like, ‘You can’t see me!’? It reminds me a lot of that.”
Meeting your child’s holistic needs for healing
Sarah Mercado is Davidson’s colleague at the Karyn Purvis Institute, so she’s worked with kids from challenging backgrounds for years. But when trauma ambushed her own family five years ago, she was surprised by how she reacted.
Getting ready for a rainy-day outing to the movies, Mercado’s family was alarmed to see floodwaters threatening their rural home. “We looked out, and what is typically a dry creek on the side of our house, probably 50, 60 yards away, was literally like a raging river through our side yard,” she says. “It happened in a total heartbeat.”
She, her husband and their two daughters (then 12 and 10) fled the home. Mercado had the girls with her in the family’s SUV. “When we were backing out, I sank the Suburban in our grass, and—this is just full disclosure—I cussed in front of them for the first time, and so they were convinced that we were going to die.”
They made it to safety, but only by crossing a couple of low spots in the road, where Mercado feared the fast-flowing water would carry away the Suburban. Meanwhile, four feet of water inundated their home, destroying most of her older daughter’s possessions and forcing the family to rebuild.
“[The girls] reacted very differently,” Mercado reveals. “One wanted to be really heavy in the mess of fixing it. She wanted all the information; she needed to know what was going on, because I think with all of that information, it calmed her down. My other one, that was creating more anxiety for her. She just needed to know, ‘Do you have me? Am I safe?’”
Both girls exhibited physical symptoms too—“lots of upset stomachs, for several months”—and uncharacteristically short tempers. But at first, Mercado and her husband were so embroiled in the busyness of taking care of the family’s physical needs that they missed the signs of their daughters’ emotional distress. “They weren’t unsafe, they were well cared for, they were having fun, but what they actually needed was us, more so than any of the other stuff,” she says.
It is easy for adults to get caught up in maintaining schedules, getting food on the table, making sure their family is physically safe and taken care of when that might not be what kids really need from them in the midst of trauma.
“When we think about safety, a lot of times we think about it in terms of, ‘I’m working really hard as a parent to provide you with a good home, a safe home’—all those structural pieces,” Davidson says. “But you can be physically present and emotionally unavailable without realizing it.”
She adds that kids need “a solid balance of structure and nurture.” But so often parents substitute one for the other. For instance: “‘I put the note in their lunch, and I made them their favorite meal, and I took them to 9,000 activities.’ And all those things are good, but they’re structural things; they’re not connection things,” Davidson explains. “When we have that relational or emotional disconnect, it’s really easy to miss the small indicators our kids are giving us that things aren’t going great.”
It took a few weeks of the girls acting out for Mercado and her husband to pick up on those indicators. “If we had intentionally made time for 10 minutes of play with them or listening or talking or just being with them, we probably would not have seen the behaviors,” she says.
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But for Mercado, sitting with her girls in their feelings was not comfortable—however irrational, she felt some responsibility for the trauma her daughters had experienced. “I almost didn’t want to see that this was a big deal, because if it was a big deal, then I potentially allowed my children to get hurt,” she says. “For me the only way to get out of the mom guilt and the being overwhelmed was to hurry up and get back to normal.”
When you just want your kids to be OK and feel safe, it’s easy to dismiss their feelings. But saying “You don’t need to be afraid” doesn’t help a child move forward; it only discounts their very real emotions. Mercado reveals that her own upbringing encouraged her to brush things off and move on. “Because I was raised in a really dismissive way, the most comfortable place for me to go was away from any heavy or hard feelings,” she says.
She’s done the work to become more emotionally available to her girls—to “sit in her discomfort” for their sake, as she puts it—and that intentional relationship-building served her family well after the flood. Once she and her husband validated their daughters’ feelings and gave them a voice in the rebuilding process, their traumatic stress symptoms began to subside.
“We don’t want the feelings to be a big deal, but the truth is the feelings become a whole lot smaller when we allow them to feel them,” she says.
Ways to Build Resilience
Mercado can attest: It’s easier to work through your child’s feelings during a traumatic situation if you’ve practiced beforehand.
“Being able to talk openly with your child, and having them feel comfortable and willing to talk openly with you, is a skill that should be developed and nurtured,” says Ronald S. Palomares-Fernandez, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and associate professor at Texas Woman’s University. “It shouldn’t be just during a traumatic event or right after the traumatic event.”
After 9/11, Palomares-Fernandez helped create resources about bouncing forward from trauma by building what researchers call resilience. He offers the good news that resilience can be learned—and must be learned, if we want our kids to weather traumatic events. “We find that there’s resilience-building skills that we can have to help us overcome not just the current trauma, but also to be more successful in the future,” he explains. Skills like these:
Talk with, not at, your child. We may fall into the habit of lecturing our kids, directing them to the next activity or telling them how they should feel, rather than engaging in a two-way, intentional dialogue. “It’s really easy as a parent—and I can be accused of this at many times—to just be really busy, and when my son or my daughter asked me a question, I gave them an answer but I wasn’t really engaged with them,” Palomares-Fernandez admits. “It’s really listening to your children, and when they have questions, answering them honestly and simply and with reassurance.”
He reveals that for kids, one of the key ingredients of resilience is having a trusted adult that they can talk to about anything and know that their feelings won’t be dismissed. Davidson echoes this sentiment: “Truly the best indicator for mental health is for kids to have meaningful relationships where they feel seen and heard, and by that, safe.”
If you and your kids don’t have this kind of open discourse, Davidson recommends starting small—just five or 10 minutes a day of intentional play and conversation. “It’s going to be awkward at first,” she says. (You can find more of her advice for these play sessions at here.)
Create and maintain routines. Established routines become especially important during a traumatic event, says Palomares-Fernandez. “Trauma just takes control away from us in so many different ways, and we feel lost. And by creating a routine, it gives us a little bit of sense of stability and control back, that ‘I can’t control what’s happening out there, but I can control my environment in here.’” But as Davidson reminds us, structure shouldn’t take the place of nurture—the goal is to find a balance that works for your family.
Find a purpose. Involve your child in something outside themselves, whether it be a chore that contributes to the household, or a service activity like picking up litter at the neighborhood park or working at a food pantry. “We find that when we’re altruistic, when we’re helping other people, there’s just this sense of happiness or goodness that invades us,” Palomares-Fernandez explains. “And by calling on a child, it does so much more because it also establishes or helps to build on their confidence.”
Offer perspective and constant reassurance. While the 24/7 news cycle is a dangerous rabbit hole, exposing your kids to some news is healthy if you’re there to offer context. “[Ask] them what they think about what’s going on, what they’ve heard, what worries them, what are they looking forward to and things like that,” Palomares-Fernandez says, stressing that parents should temper scary information with words of reassurance. “Children need to be reassured that as a parent you’re going to be there for them, that you’re going to take care of them, you’re going to love them.”
Take care of yourself. “When we’re not feeling good, it’s easier to let things bother us, let our mind wander, let us go to more negatives and more extremes,” says Palomares-Fernandez. “So taking care of ourselves is critical.” He harkens back to the need for creating routines, which could include regular exercise and healthy meals—for your kids and you. “[Parents] need to be healthy and present in order to be able to be healthy and present for their children.”
Part of caring for yourself is giving yourself grace, especially when you too are in the mire of a traumatic situation. You can’t change your circumstances or cure your child’s emotional turmoil in a day, Davidson says. “Here’s the hope for your kids,” she adds. “You can’t always protect them from all the scary things out there, but what you can do is do your best as a parent to always be sharpening your own skills to say, ‘How am I available for my child?’”
Read Your Feelings
Part of cultivating an open dialogue with your child is helping them build an emotional vocabulary beyond the basics of happy, mad and sad. “They don’t always have the ability to express their experience or even put words to how they’re feeling,” says licensed professional counselor Kelsey D’Amore of Connect To Thrive in Plano. These books can help fill in those gaps, she explains, teaching words like “frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed, ashamed—all these different kinds of words that can help them better understand themselves.”
- The Color Monster by Anna Llenas
- The Bad Seed by Jory John; illustrated by Pete Oswald
- The Good Egg by Jory John; illustrated by Pete Oswald
- The Cool Bean by Jory John; illustrated by Pete Oswald
- The Invisible String by Patrice Karst; illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
- In My Heart by Jo Witek; illustrated by Christine Roussey
And Pixar, of course, has a movie for that. “Inside Out is one of my favorite movies,” D’Amore says. “It’s wonderful; I encourage parents to start there.”
Image courtesy of iStock.