Having worked with thousands of kids over the last two decades, we have witnessed countless students demonstrate some aspects of trauma related to schooling. We now live in a post-terrorism society, one in which fear is the new normal, and in which most of us – including your children, our students – experience deep fear on a regular basis, whether consciously or subconsciously. There are regular reminders of terror and fear in the news and various entertainment media, and in casual conversations in daily life. We are reminded often by public officials – politicians, school officials, etc.
Our concern is this: what do we do with the survivors and spectators, with children going about their lives on a daily basis? How do we help them navigate their own way through this new normal which we – as adults, as parents, as teacher – are navigating for the first time ourselves? We do not take any stances regarding gun laws, health reform, mental health, law reform, or even school reform.
What are some coping strategies for surviving and going forward after or during school-related trauma? These coping strategies are fundamentally the same as the strategies for coping with trauma in general.
Coping Strategies for Trauma Victims
How can you, as a parent, help your child navigate the complexities of the new normal in this post-terrorism world?
Fundamentally, you want to build up your strong emotional resilience. But there can be a fine line between having a high level of resilience and a high level of shock. And really, sometimes shock will get you through a time of ongoing trauma. For example, in wartime, your amped-up, shocked self may just keep you going in a time where you otherwise may fall down and just give up.
Emotional resilience requires that you be in touch with your own emotions. (See our blog post regarding feelings and thoughts and the differences between them.)
Here are 5 main considerations:
1. Cultivate a feeling safety
Practically speaking, we are usually, on a daily basis, very safe – especially from acts of mass violence.
Yes, there is danger in the world, everywhere – especially riding in an automobile on the street – but it does not serve us to feel a constant state of anxiety (like when driving your car at 45 miles per hour just feet away from oncoming traffic). Rather, it behooves us to feel in these situations a sense of calm. So, how do we calm our own anxiety?
Here are some of our techniques (described elsewhere) to build a sense of safety, regardless of how young or old you may be, for children, parents, teachers, or anyone:
a. Imaginary Bubble
b. Butterfly hug
2. Release trauma
The famous pop song has much wisdom to it: “Shake it off!” See Peter Levine’s book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma for real world (and wildlife) examples of the positive and immediate effects of physically shaking yourself. You can wiggle, dance, do jumping jacks, go running or biking, etc.
An event that is emotionally challenging often leaves us feeling negatively charged, on edge, adrenaline pumping wildly. When you feel such a shock to your system, literally shake your body. You may be surprised at how effective this really is.
In addition to literally shaking your body, you can also talk it out with someone, a friend or professional or someone else.
The basic premise here is that you need to release that store up, pent up energy. If you don’t release it in a healthy way, it very likely will release in an unhealthy way (like shouting at your child, for example).
Similarly, there may be situations where you feel the need to write something, to get your feelings out. You can dispose of the paper or delete the file once you’re done writing. Often the point here is not to have some piece of written work for future use; rather it’s a way of shouting your feelings onto paper for your own immediate benefit, in the safety of knowing that nobody else will read it, not even you!
3. Feel and be supported
Children – just like any person – feel supported when they feel they are being listened to, deeply and sincerely.
When should you talk about something, and how should you talk about it?
We advise avoiding platitudes (like, “Oh, Everything will be okay!”) and avoiding conversation that simply escalates the fear. There is a difference between “danger” and “fear”.
We know from experience that it often takes time for someone (adults or children) To begin to open up and express their true feelings. This can take time, but it is always a possibility.
Very simply, your child will be ready to open up and talk when they know that you truly are listening. This means listening without distraction, with focus on each other, patiently, allowing plenty of time to speak – including empty space of no talking – and refraining from finishing someone else’s sentence or thoughts. And listen from a place of compassion and observation, rather than being defensive. And remember to abstain from assuming all of the blame and shame that might ensue from you might hear after you’ve done a good job of allowing and creating the space for your child to speak honestly and openly about their feelings.
4. Have an emergency plan
Just like tornado drills when we were in elementary school, and just like knowing CPR, it’s imperative to have an emergency plan for real emergencies. For example, what if there is a fire in your house? What if nobody is home except for the youngest child? Or, what if you are home during an attempted burglary? Or, what if the power goes out and there’s no electricity at home for a week?
This is not meant to scare anyone, but our daily lives are filled with potential emergencies. Many of them, including the examples above, can be planned and prepared effectively and with little stress.
The logistic preparation in one area of your life (like a fire at home) can emotionally prepare you better for any emergency that might ensue, anywhere. It’s one method of building up a personal resilience.
Basically, always have and maintain an awareness of your surroundings. Your intuitive sense can also alert you to potential, unseen dangers that your conscious brain maybe doesn’t recognize.
5. Get into action! Activate yourself!
This one is easy. Get up, get out, and do something in your community! Every community has some forms of volunteer services. There are many support groups of various kinds. You can join fun groups like art, dancing, sports, etc.
Basically speaking, the more connected you feel with your community around you, the less scared and more emotionally resilient you will become.