A ‘carefree childhood’ may not be every kid’s privilege in the 21st century, say parenting counsellors. Which makes it important for parents to be able to handle a sticky situation where their child may have experienced a not-so-happy incident, and be unable to cope with it, in the absence of skills that adults tend to have picked up along the way.
Jane Evans, a UK-based, trauma parenting specialist, who was in Mumbai last weekend to helm a talk on tools to establish a special bond with children at an event organised by Born Smart, says trauma in kids must be addressed. “They won’t just `go away’. Ignoring it can make your child’s brain operate on survival mode, sensing threat everywhere thereafter,” she explains. And the first step is to recognise it, because unlike adults who will spell it out, children are likely to express themselves through behaviour. Some cope by trying to please everyone and sacrificing their needs, says Evans. Others, may overreact to the slightest thing. “A tiny cut on a finger, that shouldn’t get more than a few minutes of attention, will exaggerate in their trauma-induced minds and feel like a catastrophe,” she says.
The second step is to offer simple explanations to a child. If allowed to make sense of the challenging situation on their own, they are likely to harbour misconceptions that can lead to anxiety. For instance, a child may end up believing that the argument between mummy and daddy happens because he is naughty. To tackle this stress, the child may behave inconsistently with those he loves the most or seek out `self – soothing’ strategies, including the constant use of video games, alcohol, drugs or overeating.
Evans suggests how parents should handle the most common causes of trauma among children.
A child may have an emotional outburst, lashing out at other kids or finding it difficult to make friends and unable to develop social skills. They may find it tough to focus on a task at hand, get emotional and find it tough to calm down. Alternately, he could also turn quiet and meek, observe more than speak and do exactly as told. Keeping everyone happy may make him feel secure.
Compassion and kindness is what you need here. Irrespective of a child’s behaviour, be calm and try to connect with him emotionally. Broaching the subject with, “I’m worried about you,” is a good idea. Getting them to talk will help rewire the brain, which could be in survival instead of reasoning mode. If they push another child at play, it’s not because they intend to hurt a friend. It’s because they are trying to vent their feelings. Encouraging them to come and play (accompany them), or take up a class of yoga or singing will help regulate their feelings.
DEATH AT HOME
The signs could be similar to those above. The child may appear withdrawn, worried and reclusive, or anxious. Eating patterns may be disrupted. Eating too much or too little are red flags. They could seesaw between emotions -very quiet one moment and agitated another.Most children under six don’t fully understand the idea of death. They are unable to grasp its irreversible nature. Pre-schoolers will believe that their dead dog will wake up.
If the child asks questions, respond to them honestly and in a way he will understand. Be sensitive to what the question really is and tailor your response appropriately. Checking after a few days of explaining, if the child has any new questions, is a good idea. Processing news of traumatic events is crucial for helping kids comprehend what happened.If the child is holding itself responsible for the death, explain to him simply, that everyone’s body gets sick sometimes, and when medicines don’t help, a person may die. It’s possible that you may have to explain the same thought over and over, although sensitively, before the child internalises it.
A typical trait, says Evans, in behaviour of children from broken homes, has to do with a visit to the absent parent. He may be well behaved there but have a dramatic outburst on returning to the parent with custody. Sometimes, it could take a week to calm them down. This occurs because the child is likely to repress what he feels when he meets the absent parent because he isn’t too comfortable around them.
Child custody disputes make things worse since kids interpret it as being taken away from a parent who loves them by the other.Parents who try and communicate with their estranged spouse through the child cause undue stress since the child is forced to negotiate a situation that adults have washed their hands of.
Spare the child details of the separation or divorce but let them know that you are always available to him, and open to talking about the separation if they wish. If the child doesn’t express feelings or have questions about the event, a simple explanation should be sufficient. In any case, the parent living with the child should make himself/herself available physically and emotionally all the time. It’s double the work, but imperative.
As adults, an accident can invoke anger or frustration, but among kids, the reactions are complex. Children may withdraw, turn easily irritable, experience a decrease in appetite or have repeated nightmares. In extreme cases, children can also develop a strong response to locations that remind them of the tragedy.
The only way to rectify this is by openly discussing the event with them when they are ready.This will offer them closure, allowing you and the child to refer to the event as something that `happened’ and re-inforce that you are now safe. News reports or disaster updates can repeatedly trigger the imagery in their minds. You need to help them disassociate from that imagery, and detach from the event and reinforce that you are now safe.
It sounds simple, and it might just be. Take time out every day to talk to your child. Communication is key to building an emotional connect. Being emotionally available (in tune with their mental state) coupled with them being physically present (accompanying them out to play once in a while) acts as both balm, and security reinforcer.