You may have heard people describe the COVID 19 pandemic as “traumatic” but what does trauma really mean? How do we identify how our kids have been effected by this past year and, most importantly, what can we do to help our kids (and ourselves) cope after such a rough year?
Therapeutically, trauma is described as an “emotional response to a deeply disturbing event.” The context is purposefully broad, taking into account our individual nervous systems and varied external support, both which play a role in how markedly distressing an event is to an individual psychologically. If you consider this definition, one could assume that we ALL have been exposed to the opportunity for trauma due to COVID. Our lack of external control (restrictions, unseen danger) can trigger a sense of internal helplessness as well, which is another core feature of trauma. Trauma, in general, may develop as a result of being exposed to something that feels physically or emotionally threatening or harmful.
However, not all exposures to such things creates a trauma response in an individual. What do we need to take into account when considering the difference between a trauma exposure and the development of a trauma response (PTSD)? One main factor to consider is how the elements of 2020 have been metabolized within the family (or community) unit. Although traumatic events most certainly change us, research on trauma integration once again affirms that, “It’s not always about what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you.”
Have you ever wondered why some people can experience horrific or frightening things and seem to emerge stronger whereas others have immense difficulty moving through the event without long-lasting and debilitating symptoms? In the past, this has made resilience seem like a mystery x-factor some people possess while others do not. Thankfully, in present day, we have a wide array of scientific research that instructs us how to help our kids develop resilience so that even if they encounter significant external stressors, they have built the capacity to bounce back.
Harvard psychologists studying resilience provide us with a visual to understand the development of resilience in more detail. If you consider a seesaw, with protective experiences and coping skills for our children on one side, and significant adversity on the other, the goal is to increase the protective experiences and coping skills to the degree that the seesaw is heavily weighted in that direction. This leads to positive outcomes even when there is a heavy load of stressors attempting to counterbalance it.
In a year when our sense of control has been pulled out like a rug from beneath us, what practical actions can we take as parents to maximize our positive response to the emotional effects of COVID and help our families move from a place of heavily weighted stress and chaos to tilt the scale toward protective experiences and coping skills? Decades of research indicate the single most important factor in developing resilience in a child is the presence of at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver or another adult. This constant in a child’s life serves as a buffer for the developmental disruption that can happen if a child is exposed to too many stressors during a time of critical brain development. Additionally, Harvard Research has indicated there are at least 4 very practical steps parents can take to facilitate a resilient child, and after the year we’ve all experienced with COVID, it’s comforting to know that these factors will effectively “stack the scale” in a child’s favor. These counterbalancing factors include:
– Facilitating supportive adult-child relationships
– Building a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control
– Providing opportunities to strengthen adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities
– Mobilizing sources of faith, hope and cultural traditions (Harvard.edu)
In the largest scale study of childhood trauma to date, the ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study), researchers found that exposure to a high amount of adverse childhood experiences (ACES) causes relational and health problems later in life. Some researchers suggest that disruption into children’s lives from COVID may qualify as an ACE moving forward. Whereas ACES have been widely studied, a 2019 study out of Johns Hopkins University developed the first large scale study identifying steps parents and communities can take to counteract childhood trauma or stressors. These factors were aptly named Protective Childhood Experiences (PCEs). When parents engage in these experiences with their children, their children show improved mental health and increased social connectedness as adults.
Identified PCE’s include:
– Being able to talk about feelings with family
– Feeling supported by family in difficult times
– Participating in community traditions
– Feeling as though one belongs (in high school)
– Feeling supported by friends
– Feeling as though at least two non-parent adults truly care
– Feeling safe and protected by adults at home
These are all research-based actions we can actively take to buffer some of the stress from COVID and help our kids with re-entry post-COVID.
A note for those who have experienced deeper trauma during COVID (loss of a loved one, livelihood, career): Whereas most people have heard of the category of trauma response labeled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD), emerging research has found that post-traumatic stress is not the only possible response to trauma.
With the right support, up to 2/3 of individuals who have experienced trauma or trauma-like events can develop something psychologists called “post-traumatic growth”, which is a way of working through the confusion, pain and suffering and emerging with a new appreciation of life, personal strength and spiritual change. These individuals have grasped onto something many trauma survivors have not been able to make sense of yet—and that is the development of a meaning to their experience. These individuals have cultivated a deeper strength of character and a new way of living beyond just “getting by”.
How have they done this? One of the primary sources of post-traumatic growth arises through relationships where the individual feels “nurtured, liberated or validated” and experiences “genuine acceptance from others” (Woodward and Joseph, 2003.). When the timing is right, attentive listening and a compassionate presence provide the crucial environment for an individual to begin to explore meaning beyond their pain. Whereas some of our greatest pain comes through broken relationships, some of our deepest healing can emerge through supportive ones. As a community, we want to support you through providing these types of relationships, whether it be through a friend, church staff or professional counselor. Visit our home page and complete the free assessment today to get started on your path to healing, meaning and hope.