There’s a funny thing that seems to happen when you work in an emergency services field. Everything happens at once. It’s this constant barrage of crisis and OMG and run around like crazy and then – nothing. As well, it’s not just that crisis all happens at once, it seems (and it could just be a 10 year coincidence) that the same types of things happen all at once. So, you’ll get a rash of domestic related calls, and then a bunch of suicide related events, and then a bunch of sexual assault types of incidents. It seems right now, we’re in a big “youth issues” wave. Client after client after client is a teenager right now. I know we’re in an office position where we see a lot more teenagers than most folks in our field do, but it’s not just that. It’s all the calls (or it sure seems that way).
Sure enough, in the midst of this teenager related wave of stuff, a friend of mine was commenting on how her house burned down when she was a young girl. They all got out (thankfully) but her stuff burned up in the fire. Yes, you’re always thankful to be out alive and in one piece but there are times (and childhood and adolescence is one of those times) when losing your stuff can be very traumatic. She commented that for two or three years afterwards, she had to put a big bag of her stuff by the front door every night when she went to bed. That way if she had to run out of the house again, she could grab the bag on the way out. This was quickly followed by a “someone should probably have gotten me counseling”.
Children and teenagers suffer from trauma related responses the same way adults do. Traumatic events cause the same stress responses regardless of your age. The difference often centers around the person’s ability to work through the trauma and stress (children and teenagers don’t have the same cognitive abilities available to them that most adults do). The difference is also demonstrated in behaviour. Kids and teenagers, no matter how articulate, use behaviour as their primary mode of communication. They’ll show you what they’re thinking long before they’ll be able to tell you. With that in mind, we often put together two kits of information when we respond to kids (including teenagers) and traumatic events. One for the kids to tell them what is going on and why and what to expect next; one for the parents to help them understand what is going on and what to expect next (and maybe a few things that are good to try).
Here are some general guidelines for understanding and / or responding to kids and teenagers who have been involved in a traumatic incident.
1. Reinforce the idea of safety and security. You may need to do this multiple times (are we there yet?). This is just as important for the adolescent as it is for the young child. Adolescents need to feel safe and while they don’t necessarily “run to mommy” in an obvious manner, the need still exists. It is important to remember that if a child or adolescent does not feel safe, you’re not going to be as effective in helping them.
2. Listen to and / or tolerate a retelling or replaying of events. Set limits, in particular for hurtful or scary behaviour.
3. Accept feelings that are expressed regardless of whether you understand them or agree with them. Reassure individuals of normal reactions and that all feelings are okay.
4. Children process information in short bursts and may blurt out a question that may seem out of context, unusual or even shocking to the adults around them. Respond calmly; answer questions in short and simple and direct sentences and help them transition back to whatever they were doing. Adolescents also process information in short bursts but they will stay on a point longer than children will and explore it a little more before moving on.
5. Use simple and direct terms when talking about what has happened. Avoid ‘softening’ terms when talking about the event as this is confusing for kids. Kids and teenagers are very ‘black and white’ and process information accordingly. Using descriptive but ‘safer’ words might not make sense.
6. It’s common for children and adolescents to express a lot of misunderstanding about whatever has happened. Kids often blame themselves and it is important for them to hear that it is not their fault. They often need help understanding what has happened and why, even if it seems obvious to you.
7. Kids need to hear the same thing over and over and over again. Sometimes kids and adolescents need to hear the same thing repeatedly in order to integrate it into their understanding of what has happened. Let them ask as many times as they need to, without expressing frustration or “I already told you” types of responses.
8. It’s common to see angry outbursts from kids and teenagers. Respond calmly. If you react in an angry or anxious manner, it will elevate your child’s sense of danger, instability or insecurity.
9. Be aware of your own reactions. Kids and teenagers respond to the nonverbal cues of those around them. They may be responding to what you’re NOT saying more than what you are saying! It’s okay to express emotions but it’s helpful if you explain what they are and why you’re feeling them as you do.
10. If at all possible, provide soothing, safe activities to help kids feel calm and relaxed. Colouring pictures, listening to music, going for a walk, writing in a journal, sipping a hot cup of tea or cocoa or any other ritual or routine that is predictable will often help.