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Sunday 26 January 2020
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How to help children cope with trauma

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One afternoon last term, I was about 50 minutes early picking up my son from school. The school gates were locked and there were a few other parents waiting around. One impatient father, who had not pre-arranged to take his child out of school early, was giving the female security guard a really hard time because she refused to open the gates until 15 minutes before the dismissal bell rang, as were her instructions by the principal. She advised him to call the office and request that the child be sent out if it was an emergency. He walked off in a huff.

I was pleased to see that she did not allow him to intimidate her and that she respectfully stood her ground, because she is one of the major players on the team responsible for keeping the student body and staff safe during the time they spend at the school. Her stance decreased the odds of the occurrence of atrocious incidents, like the one that took place at Baby's Pre-School at the corner of George Street and Independence Square last week.

The pre-school principal Jezelle Philip was stabbed several times by a man, in the presence of students of the school. She died on her way to the hospital.

I have since wondered what those children must have felt witnessing such a horrific scene. The woman in whose care their parents entrusted their safety and early education for a few hours every day. A woman in whose arms or laps some of them must have sought comfort when they were having a bad day. The woman who guided their little hands and minds as they learned through activities and play. The incident must have taken a toll on them.

Trauma specialist Hanif Benjamin told WMN the first thing their parents should have done was get them an immediate trauma debrief, which according to psychologytoday.com "is a specific technique designed to assist others in dealing with the physical or psychological symptoms that are generally associated with trauma exposure. Debriefing allows those involved with the incident to process the event and reflect on its impact. Ideally, debriefing can be conducted on or near the site of the event."

Then, he said, they should have arranged for immediate counselling and monitor them for the next 72 hours for regressive behaviour.

"Encopresis, enuresis, nightmares, clingy behaviour, emotional challenges," Benjamin said are some of the more common regressive behaviours in children after traumatic experiences.

"Encopresis is the repeated passing of faeces into places other than the toilet, such as in underwear or on the floor. This behaviour may or may not be done on purpose. Enuresis is the repeated passing of urine in places other than the toilet... As with encopresis, this behaviour may or may not be done on purpose," an article on webmd.com explains.

And then the odds of them developing post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, are very high. PTSD is usually diagnosed after a person displays symptoms for at least a month after a traumatic event. They may re-live the trauma through recollections and flashbacks, avoid places and activities that remind them of the incidents, have difficulty sleeping and concentrating, or become easily angered or irritated.

But while treating PTSD should be left to a professional, there are things parents can do to help with the healing process.

Details of the gruesome murder of Philip is still being circulated in the media, mainstream and social, to which the little witnesses ought not to be exposed. "Excessive exposure to images of a disturbing event – such as repeatedly viewing video clips on social media or news sites – can even create traumatic stress in children or teens who were not directly affected by the event...Limit your child’s media exposure to the traumatic event," helpguide.org suggests.

And while it will take time for your child to recover, spending time with and engaging them in conversation can help speed up the process.

"Provide your child with ongoing opportunities to talk about what they went through or what they’re seeing in the media. Encourage them to ask questions and express their concerns but don’t force them to talk," the website advised. Also, "Do 'normal' activities with your child that have nothing to do with the traumatic event. Encourage your child to seek out friends and pursue games, sports, and hobbies that they enjoyed before the incident. Go on family outings to the park or beach, enjoy a games night, or watch a funny or uplifting movie together."

Physical activity is well known for releasing mood-enhancing endorphins and its role in aiding sleep. Encourage them to play basketball or football, to run or swim, go outside to play with friends. "If they seem resistant to get off the couch, play some of their favourite music and dance together. Once a child gets moving, they’ll start to feel more energetic."

And since diet affects mood, it will help to encourage your child to eat healthily.

"Eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can help your child better cope with the ups and downs that follow a disturbing experience... Limit fried food, sweet desserts, sugary snacks and cereals, and refined flour. These can all exacerbate symptoms of traumatic stress in kids."

Traumatic experiences can change the way in which children look at the world, especially as it regards trust and stability. "You can help by rebuilding your child’s sense of safety and security. Create routines...Speak of the future and make plans. This can help counteract the common feeling among traumatised children that the future is scary, bleak, and unpredictable." And most importantly, keep your promises.

"You can help to rebuild your child’s trust by being trustworthy. Be consistent and follow through on what you say you’re going to do," helpguide.com admonishes.

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