Our life is full of surprises and they are often not pleasant. Everybody experiences traumatic events during the course of life and children are no exceptions. It is important to examine the question how their developing body, mind, psyche and morality reacts to sudden and unexpected life experiences and how adults can help helping children cope with traumatic events and not only survive but bounce back and grow stronger.
Development is endangered by the factors that damage the basic human adaptation systems. These systems are the attachment, the learning and problem-solving capacities of the individual, self-efficacy, the proper functioning of the familial system, the organization of the broader community or cultural and spiritual traditions. Depending on the characteristic of the traumatic event, some of these basic systems or in extreme cases all of them might suffer. (Masten, Powell, 2003)
What can are examples of trauma in the life of a child?
Traumatic events can stem from the individual, from the family or from the broad context of community or society. In most cases, it is hard to differentiate and categorize traumatic life events. For example, a serious, possibly life-threatening illness is an event, which affects the individual, but without a doubt, it exerts effect on the functioning of the family as well. Accidents, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, early antisocial or deviant behaviors, physical or sexual abuse of the child are the most typical traumas children have to face. These events influence the family as well and might have more far-ranging consequences as well.
Family as the Source of Trauma
The family, as a unit, might also be the source of traumatic events for children – either intentionally or inadvertently. Parents, grandparents or siblings can become ill, can have accidents or pass away. Children may be subjected to witnessing serious marital conflicts between the parents that, in some extreme cases even culminate in physical violence. The family might suffer from the effects of divorce, remarriage, unemployment and consequently poverty, frequent relocations, criminality, homelessness or alcoholism.
Society & Community as the Source of Trauma
Community or society can be the source of trauma for children (and families) by not providing adequate and secure housing, lack of social support, oppressing political climate, violence directed to specific groups of the society, chaos, war or simply just providing insufficient economical resources. One of the most important and threatening traumatic events today is terrorism. Nature can be cruel as well, hurricanes, tsunami, eruptions, earthquakes or similar dramatic events happen from time to time. (Reed-Victor, 2003, Rahman, 1999, Grotberg, 1995, Engle, Castle, Menon, 1996)
Traumatic events can happen suddenly, like a natural disaster, a terrorist attack or an accident or they can have a prolonged effect on the life of children, such as poverty, illness or marital conflicts. The effect depends to a great extent on the type of event, its severity, the prospects of the future and the ability of the individual to have an influence over the happenings.
Children Are Vulnerable
The outward signs of trauma in children are not always so apparent. Some children were thought to be invulnerable because they were seemingly unaffected by stress. This assumption, in the vast majority of cases, is simply not true. Some children are able to cope effectively and successfully with greater traumas and more stressful events, while others have lesser coping capacities.
A certain amount of stress or trauma affects everybody, no matter what you think and what you do. Resistance to stress or coping with traumatic events is a relative attribute; it is rooted in the personality of the child as well as in the characteristics of the environment and finally, the ability to cope is changing according to the situation. No one can be described as someone who copes well with all adversities. In contrast, a child, who failed to handle stressful events, might show a surprising coping in the light of an adverse situation.
How can adults help children cope?
Traumatic events often represent a great source of stress for adults as well. Never forget: you are a model to your child. Do not expect him to be brave and slay all dragons if he sees you collapse under the weight of events. I am not saying you should show your child a false sense of strength, but strength you must show. It must originate from the inside and they must be sure that whatever happens, you will be there and try everything you can to make their situation better.
You can teach them problem-solving skills and encourage independence, keeping in mind the capabilities of the child according to their age. When children realize that they can solve certain problems without your help or interference, they will increase their self-esteem and a sense of self-efficacy and learn valuable skills they can transfer to new situations.
It is important to teach them that panic will not help. Even under the greatest pressure or in the most adverse situation, they should keep their calm and act as collected as possible. They need to communicate, ask for help if they need it and be able to locate resources necessary for problem solving or in extreme cases, survival. They should look for allies, as even the bravest and strongest have slimmer chances alone. Most importantly, you should make them aware of the fact that bad things will happen to you as well and they will not be able to avoid them. They should look for bringing out the best of every situation, regardless how bad it is. Traumatic experiences are what they are: experiences. They offer an opportunity to learn from them and to develop. Yes, it is hard to see the chance for development in the death of a parent or a destroyed house, but these events can bring forth skills, abilities and knowledge to adapt and survive.
Children are incredibly strong. The adults in their lives can (and should) provide support, offer tuition or just be there for them when they have to face their own battles.
Engle, P. L. et al.: Child Developement: Vulnerability and Resilience, Social Science & Medicine, Vol 43. No. 5., 1996
Grotberg, E. H.: A Guide to Promoting Resilience in Children: Strengthening the Human Spirit, The Hauge: The Bernard van Leer Foundation, 1995.
Masten, A. S., Powell, J. L.: A Resilience Framework for Research, Policy, and Practice, IN: Luthar, S.S. (Ed.): Resilience and Vulnerability: Adaptation in the Context of Childhood Adversities, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003
Rahman, A. J.: Early Intervention or Resilience. A Case Study AUSEINET International Conference, Adelaide, Australia, June 1999
Reed-Victor, E.: Supporting Resilience of Children and Youth, Project HOPE Information Brief No. 1. 2003