When something scary happens in a place that is supposed to be safe? There’s a lot to consider:
PART 1: Understand trauma, it’s potential impact, and when to be concerned.
Trauma is often misunderstood and can be confusing to wrap your head around, not only for teens, but also for adults. It’s important to understand trauma and typical reactions; otherwise, it can feel very scary and cause added anxiety if you don’t understand them. Trauma involves experiencing a situation that a person feels threatening and creates a strong emotional reaction, although not all people will develop a significant trauma reaction to scary events. Scary events within a community, such as a school shooting, will impact everyone differently. Whether someone develops a trauma reaction, either immediately or in the long term, depends on how well the body is able to interpret and process the event and whether it gets stuck processing the event due to a heightened stress response.
Essentially, your brain and body are doing exactly what they need to do in a trauma, that is, putting your body on high-alert in a fight-flight-or-freeze state in order to keep you safe. After a trauma, sometimes it takes time for your body to recognize that it is safe, so you might still experience physical symptoms and hypervigilance following a trauma. Likewise, your brain may send out the all clear signal after the trauma, letting your brain and body eventually calm; however, having physical or sensory reminders (e.g., what you see, smell, hear, taste or feel) can sometimes trigger your brain to go on high alert again.
Typically, people experience trauma reactions for about two weeks following a significant event, although the timeline can vary depending on the individual.
Additional reactions to trauma may include the obsessive need to talk about the event. Although we encourage talking about the event and processing thoughts and emotions about the event, excessive talking and focus on the traumatic event can fuel heightened emotional reactions. While it is important to discuss feelings and emotions, setting a time limit can be helpful for people who attempt to feel a sense of control by constantly talking or trying to gather endless data about the event.
Some people may also experience dissociation. Dissociation is a helpful coping skill that your brain uses automatically when you are in physical danger and can’t escape or flee. The mind takes over and takes you somewhere else. Although dissociation is helpful at the time of the trauma, it can make it more difficult to process the trauma. Sometimes, dissociation continues beyond the trauma because it can take a while before your brain realizes you are safe and makes sense of what happened to you. Dissociation can look like:
Not remembering parts of the trauma
Feeling spaced out or sleepy
Losing track of time
Feeling numb or cut off from parts of yourself
Feeling disconnected from your body
That’s very basic information on trauma and typical reactions. Once you’ve gained a better understanding of trauma, you can better support your child and teen and likely feel more confident helping your child process the event. Normalizing experiences is one key aspect of helping process the trauma. Another key factor to help support your child is to check in with yourself about your own experience of the traumatic event and how it relates to your child. Both education and understanding your own reactions can lay the groundwork that allows you to feel more confident in opening conversations, monitoring your child’s reactions, and supporting your child. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 for more in-depth information about understanding your own reaction and communicating effectively with your teen about a potentially traumatic event.
It’s important to seek help when symptoms last for a prolonged period of time, happen frequently, or remain intense and seem to interfere with usual activities and functioning. Frequent avoidance is a sign that a person likely needs extra support and guidance in processing the trauma and their anxiety. Although experiencing a traumatic event can certainly impact people and change them in some ways, if people don’t seem themselves, it may also be time to seek additional support. If you’re not sure, err on the side of having discussions with your child and seeking support and guidance. Your school, pediatrician, or local mental health center often have a variety of resources available or can point you in the right direction.
For a more in-depth resource and guide age by age, check out The Child Mind Institute’s Helping Children Cope after a Traumatic Event
Resources from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)