Essential Children's Pain Relievers: Your Actions Can Ease or Worsen Trauma and Tragedy
Presenting our Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Workshop at schools in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and Waveland, Mississippi in the past few weeks was a real eye-opener. While most of our readers will hopefully never have to cope with the level of trauma that the Gulf Coast area still faces, you still will encounter your share of youngsters coping with death, divorce, loss, abuse, and other tragedy. It is critical that you know as much as you can about working with these students as even little mistakes can be quite damaging to youngsters who are struggling.
I'm Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. I write books and give workshops on how to help children and teens to cope with crisis and trauma. I want to share with you some of my best ideas that can help children and adolescents to weather serious emotional turmoil.
We were totally shocked to see that schools throughout the Katrina region are still in pieces. We want to be of service to those of you who are teaching and counseling in tiny trailers or buildings that are still falling down. Whether you work with many traumatized children like professionals on the Gulf Coast, or you encounter them in much smaller numbers, you need to know all you can about helping these fragile youngsters. Here are some of the most important questions posed in our recent Gulf Coast workshops:
Helping Children and Teens in Times of Trauma
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Q: Can traumatized students become ADD?
A: No, trauma can't cause ADD, but trauma can cause symptoms that are similar to some of the symptoms of ADD. So, traumatized students can be distracted, unable to maintain focus, have trouble completing tasks, lose their train of thought, and have little enthusiasm for school. Think back to the last crisis you faced– a car accident, for example. You showed the same symptoms until the crisis ebbed. The symptoms are all normal reactions that can persist.
What To Do: During your crisis, no one could have "forced" you to function better. The same guideline is true for youngsters in crisis. Like you, they are doing the best they can. Since being in pain is no fun, most of us stop feeling bad as quickly as we can. Your students' symptoms should lessen as the crisis lessens, but for on-going crises, expect the symptoms to persist.
For Gulf Coast students still living in trailers, or for youngsters caught in an on-going battle between divorcing parents, the crisis continues– and so do the symptoms. Your expectations should rise and fall with the child's level of functioning. When a child is particularly dissipated, reduce your expectations. On days, the child is more functional, increase expectations. Your goal for distressed children: Work as hard as you can on days that you're able. Is it fair to ask more than that of any distressed human being?
Q: I thought that people are supposed to start "getting over it" one year after major trauma like a death, hurricane or divorce. Is that true?
A: The "One Year Rule" developed because the thinking is that one year after a death, for example, you've made it through all the birthdays, holidays and other painful dates that you will face after your tragedy or loss. That is a major reason why one year is viewed as a marker to gauge the pace of recovery. However, the year starts when the crisis stops. If the crisis persists then the clock really doesn't start ticking toward one year.
What To Do: You probably have no power to hasten the end of the crisis, but that is what the distressed child really needs. Until then, you proceed as described above, expecting students to work as hard as they can on days they are able. In addition, teach students that the One Year Rule is just a guide. Teach them that just as the time needed for a physical wound to heal will vary from person to person, teach them that human beings don't all heal emotionally at one single pace. Conveying this information can alleviate children's guilt over continuing to feel bad after they are "supposed to."
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A: Each distressed youngster manages their distress differently. Two children can face the exact same trauma, but manage their distress utterly differently. One child may become verbally abusive while another may become almost mute. There is no "right way" for youngsters to manage pain. Even though a child faces difficulty, you can not lower your standards for acting in socially acceptable ways. Courts and police won't accept that excuse so neither can you. You also can not just suspend all customary consequences for misconduct, because the real world won't react that way. Plus, if there are no consequences for misbehavior, then there is no impetus to ever stop misbehaving.
What To Do: You can take extenuating circumstances into account as you mete out consequences. Try to strike the balance between maintaining expectations for conduct, and being sensitive to the difficult circumstances that the child is facing. Remember: "An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior." That quote is from Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor. For children who struggle with very grave crises, such as the on-going homelessness of Katrina survivors, there is no "correct" way to react.
While socially inappropriate behaviors can't be tolerated, children in crisis do the best they can. There will never be a "normal" way to react to a year of living in a cramped FEMA trailer. There will never be a "normal" way to react to feeling like a human ping pong ball in divorcing parents' brutal battle. While there may not be a "normal" way to react to overwhelming pain, the pain can't become a license to hurt others or grossly misbehave. Teach your students: "It's okay to be mad. It's not okay to be mean."
Q: Do I have many distressed students?
A: Pain is not always obvious, but here are some guesses on how much pain exists: About 15% of children cope with substance abuse in the home; 10% cope with severe emotional disturbance; 15% live with verbal abuse, beatings, or emotional abuse. A staggering 20% or more live with sexual abuse or incest. Some youngsters face pain in more than one of these areas. Kids seldom announce their distress, but it often drives their behavior. The more you can understand their behavior, the more readily you can manage it.
What To Do: Even though today's teacher works with many traumatized and acting-out students, traditional teacher training typically does not include much course work on the topic. Most teachers need to get this training that their college preparation omitted. If you want more in-depth suggestions on traumatized youth, look at the column on the right side of this page for more educational articles on working with traumatized children and teens.