Many adults know what it feels like to be traumatized as a child because they have experienced it themselves while growing up, be it tornados or floods, accidents, death of a close family member or friend, poverty, peer teasing, or difficulties at home. However, in our lifetime, most of us have not experienced a world-wide trauma, like a pandemic or world war.
World-wide events are different than more localized traumas as there is some sense of normalcy still standing outside the disaster. However, when the whole world is dealing with a pandemic, it is hard to find the anchor. There is no knowledge as to where the COVID-19 will take us, how bad it will get and how long it will last. Most of what we do know is that there have been pandemics in the past and we have survived them. It is at least a reference point.
How do we help our children if the adults in the room aren’t able to gain perspective themselves on how to move forward? Even though most of us adults are struggling with heightened anxiety and fear ourselves about the pandemic, that dread is quickly infiltrated to our children. Overall, children are mostly vulnerable as their developing brains are easily overwhelmed with raw emotions of which a filter has not yet emerged. They haven’t gained a perspective as to how to survive, and without logic or guidance, children can easily become prey to their own explosive emotions and the trauma itself is absorbed into the fabric of their own development, with lifelong influences.
Nearly 5 months in and children have already experienced the surge of emotion that comes with traumas. It can take the form of anger, irritability, clinginess, sleeping difficulties and nightmares, and isolation. Along with life or death worries and fears, their lives have also been disrupted with no school, limited contact with their friends and extended families, the scarcity of activities they have become accustomed to, their parents’ own struggles with increased demands, the change of structure at home with parents having fluctuating work schedules and environments, budgeting changes, a lack of structure and much less stimulation than their previous life before COVID-19. Children need to know that despite the trauma, a part of their lives are still indeed normal, and life goes on. Children need their parents or guided adults to help them realize that their whole world isn’t caving in.
Parents need to manage their own stressors so that they can be good role models for their children. Parents need to be perceptive to their children’s needs and avail themselves accordingly. Parents need to give their children the love and attention they need to help them find ways to express themselves and direct their fears and anxieties to a level that they can manage. Parents need to be honest with their children, explaining what is happening in a way that they can understand, even if they are young. Parents need to provide structure and routines to their days so that their children can find some anchor. Parents need to find a sense of “normalcy”, so that their children can grasp it as well.
Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW