When Trauma Affects Children

    Building Resilience in Kids Is Key to Recovery

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    Children are miracles. As parents, we strive to keep them safe and to minimize hardships.

    As much as we work to protect them, our children can still be exposed to terrible things. We can’t always shield them from the violence in the media, bullies in schools and online, and from witnessing tragedy anywhere from the school to the roadway. Even when we work to keep them safe, for example, by conducting active shooter drills in our schools, they can be left with nightmares and worry. We don’t want our children to experience horrific things. But when they encounter the inevitable, we want them to be resilient and allow the bad things to fade from memory. 

    When a child fears for her safety over and over again, or experiences one single event of significant danger, and it affects the child in negative ways, we call this trauma. It actually changes the wiring of the brain and makes her react to scary things in new ways. This child’s brain will tend to overreact to minor problems and under-react to significant threats. This child is often seen as hyperactive, distracted, disruptive, or depressed. As you can imagine, this can cause problems in school and at home.

    If a child has repeated memories, nightmares and fears of an event, or ongoing patterns of overreacting or under-reacting, families should seek professional support. But there is much that we can do to help our children both before and after an event of trauma.

    One amazing thing about a child’s brain is that it can change! This is called neuroplasticity. The brain can change, adapt, and grow throughout life. We can help our children to heal from the impact of a traumatic event. We can trump the trauma by building resilience.

    Relationships are the cornerstone of building resilience in children, and resilience is what will overcome the effects of trauma. Children need to be connected to multiple caring adults in more than one area of their lives. It is the relationships that children have with parents, teachers, mentors, and coaches that truly help our children stay strong through adversity. Children internalize these supports so that even when they are alone, they can reach inside and know that they are loved and valued. This is how these relationships elevate a child’s self-esteem.

    Many things that build resilience come naturally. Did you know that by involving our kids in activities like sports, music lessons, and the arts, we help strengthen their confidence and competence? As parents, by focusing on what is strong, and not what is wrong, we can help our kids develop a stockpile of resources to manage struggles. By giving our children chores in our home and encouraging them to help others, we develop their sense of character and contribution. And by giving them choices in their daily routine and encouraging effective ways of managing their big feelings, we give them a sense of control and coping skills. We call these seven Cs the elements of resilience-building: competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control.

    For more informaton on trauma recovery and building resilience in children, go to fosteringresilience.com, resiliencetrumpsACES.org, and centerforyouthwellness.org.

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    John Richardson-Lauve
    John Richardson-Lauve, LCSW, is the program manager for mental health services at ChildSavers, a nonprofit in Richmond’s East End providing mental health and child development services to our children for more than ninety years. He’s the father of 8-year-old Noah, and lives in Glen Allen.