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Wednesday 15 August 2018
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Traumatic times for children

FILE PHOTO: Investigators process the scene of a shooting incident on Queen Street, Port of Spain.

On January 6, my nine-year-old son told me that because of all the criminal activities reported in the media, the only place he feels safe is at home.

A feeling of helplessness enveloped me because I knew the burglar-proofed doors and windows, the deadbolts and alarm system, still did not guarantee our safety at home.

Two days later, on the afternoon of January 8, the newsroom received a report of a shooting incident in Trou Macaque, Laventille, in which three children were killed. Details were still sketchy, but I felt my heart deploy and shatter in my chest like an airbag that had malfunctioned, followed by a burning sensation. And even when it was confirmed that only one child, 14-year-old Joshua Andrews, had died and the other two had been hospitalised – one shot in the face and the other losing a finger – the burning didn’t stop.

It was still one dead child too many. A teenager who had left his home that morning expecting to return and probably planning to eat, get homework out of the way and get in as much screen or outdoor time as he could before bedtime. He could have never imagined that his last breath would be in the form of a scream as fire devoured his youthful flesh.

The car in which 14-year-old schoolboy Joshua Andrews was allegedly killed.

That evening I deliberately distracted my son from looking at the 7 pm newscast. He was traumatised enough, and I refused to add to that burden. I listened to an interview given by the Minister of National Security Edmund Dillon, who declared that this time a “line has been crossed” and “no stone would be left unturned” in finding the perpetrator. I noted that in his reference to the line-crossing he had forgotten to add “for the last time” – for surely that line has already been crossed hundreds of times – 30 of those over the last 16 days.

I also made note of his failure to mention that “turned stones” would be added to the list of imported goods, for surely there are none left in this country to be unturned in search of perpetrators.

My thoughts went to Joshua’s family, his schoolmates, his friends. How is his gruesome murder going to affect them?

My guess is, in much the same way as the thousands of children who are left traumatised by the runaway level of crime on a daily basis.

“Just as in the case of an adult, it is natural for a child to be concerned about their safety and of those around them when something bad happens,” clinical therapist and traumatologist Hanif EA Benjamin tells Newsday.

“Being a witness to a traumatic or violent event can have a very serious and long-term impact on children. Nearly all children and youth will experience some form of distress and/or changes to affect, cognition or behaviour, whether they witness or are directly impacted by a traumatic event,” Benjamin says, explaining that the impact of witnessing a traumatic event is often referred to as “vicarious trauma.”

“Although you yourself were not physically affected or actually involved in the event, you can still be affected psychologically by what you have seen, heard or experienced. Like direct exposure, indirectly being exposed to a negative traumatic event can have resulting negative reactions and behaviours.” Benjamin says responses to traumatic experiences vary in children and adolescents, and a child who has been through one or more such event may be at risk of child traumatic stress.

This, he said, “manifests in the child becoming very upset for long periods, depressed, or anxious. They may also show changes in the way they behave, or in their eating and sleeping habits; have aches and pains; have difficulties at school, problems relating to others, or not want to be with others or take part in activities.

“For older children, as a way to cope with the intrusive thoughts and feelings, they may turn to drugs and alcohol, engage in risk-taking behaviours or engage in unhealthy sexual activity.”

It must be noted, however, that not all short-term responses to trauma result in dysfunction in a child.

“Some children are able to adapt, using their skills of resilience in overcoming traumatic adversity.”

Benjamin says children who may not be directly involved in a traumatic incident, but who see or hear about it via TV or social media, are at risk for secondary trauma.

“These reactions are normal as children grapple with a sense of safety for themselves and those around them. Common reactions for children and youth can include prolonged crying; sadness and worrying; being fearful, having nightmares and difficulty sleeping, becoming anxious, physical reactions such as nausea or headaches, difficulty concentrating at home or at school.

FILE PHOTO: Soldiers leave the scene of a raid which resulted in a gunfight between police officers and a suspect at Damarie Hill, Guiaco, Sangre Grande.

“These reactions are normal, and may continue for days, weeks or even months.”

Benjamin advises parents and guardians, as much as possible, to try to create an environment in which their children feel safe.

“Yes, that means reducing the amount of exposure to coverage of traumatic incidents,” although mass and social media have a way of bringing everything into the home. “And if not in the home, one way or the other, children will eventually be exposed to such events.

“Therefore, parents must be prepared to talk with their children on their feelings and reactions. Additionally, parents should pay attention to changes in their children’s emotion and behaviour.”

He emphasises that children are resilient, and that they can and do recover from traumatic events in their lives.

“Do not minimise the event in their lives and think that if we forget about it or don’t make a fuss, he or she will not be bothered. It is critical that as the primary support in the child’s life, the parent maintains a belief of hope that is transmitted to the child in order to bolster their own coping and eventual thriving out of adversity.

“However, even with the support of family members and others, some children do not heal. When distress continues for several weeks, a mental health professional trained in trauma care can help the whole family cope with the effects of traumatic events.”

He says it is also important for parents and guardians to practise healthy self-care, as they are the model by which children learn to respond to traumatic incidents and events.

What to do: 

  • Answer children’s questions in language they can understand, so that they can develop an understanding of the events and changes in their life
  • Develop family safety plans
  • Engage in age-appropriate activities that stimulate the mind and body
  • Find ways to have fun and relax together
  • Help children expand their “feelings” vocabulary
  • Honour family traditions that bring them close to the people they love, eg, storytelling, holiday celebrations, reunions, trips
  • Look for changes in behaviours
  • Set and adhere to routines and schedules
  • Set boundaries and limits with consistency and patience
  • Show love and affection
    (courtesy the National Child Traumatic Stress Network)



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