Community trauma 101: Building resilience in 2020

September 29, 2020
PHOTO: Getty Images

Confused. Angry. Scared. Shocked. Numb... 

These are only some of the most commonly used words to describe feelings about the increase in public murders of and violence against Black individuals, and the resulting climates. Many grow weary while wondering if it’s safe to hope for a better future. How can we help our children face the realities in front of them?

Be aware of traumatic stress and its effects

We are currently witnessing community trauma, or the trauma that affects social groups that have been long subjected to violence due to historic and ongoing social inequities, such as racism and oppression of power. Houston has a very long history of witnessing and standing up to community trauma, even dating all the way back to the 1917 Houston Riot where military members protested police brutality against the Black community. Recently, with the highly publicized violence against and murders of Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, this history has become more present and amplified than ever before.

What are the signs of traumatic stress?

For adolescents and adults, such moments of community stress can lead to feelings of isolation, mistrust, intense fear or anxiety, emotional numbing, and even increased physical symptoms such as headaches or pain, poor sleep and changing appetite. Pre-teens and teens may show more irritability and social withdrawal, spend more time alone or not want to participate with family or friends, and possibly use social media to express their more difficult feelings. 

In younger children, traumatic stress can look like a change in behavior, such as appearing sad, worried, empty or clingy. Some young children will have new or worse behavioral problems (e.g., cling to adults, have outbursts, be easily irritated, break rules) and many will have trouble concentrating or paying attention. Similar to adults, trouble sleeping, stomach aches, headaches, racing heart and difficulty breathing are also common physical signs of traumatic stress in children and teens. 

These are all normal responses to trauma, and generally will decrease with time and strong social support. However, if not cared for, these reactions can have major effects on our physical and mental health for years to come. 

The good news is, we are resilient. 

Most people, especially children and teens, are resilient. Meaning, that just because we are exposed to trauma does not mean we are going to be traumatized. In fact, most people who experience a trauma don’t develop post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and with time, support and good health habits, heal even stronger than before. And for those that do develop post-traumatic stress, the opportunity for post-traumatic growth is even greater.

Reduce the risk

The first step to reducing the effects of trauma is to prevent re-traumatization. For many of us, this means limiting our daily intake of media and encouraging breaks from screen time. Although provocative and informative, the images and sounds being shared across social media platforms can also be distressing and harmful, especially if someone is already showing signs of stress. 

Also, parents can spend more time talking with their children honestly about what is happening in the world. Children are like sponges, constantly taking in what happens around them whether we like it or not. Trying to shield them from the reality of today’s world or how others are dealing with it can lead them to feel even more confused and unsafe. A recent post by Texas Children’s psychologist, Dr. Gia Washington, discusses how to talk with your children about what happened to George Floyd and highlights age-appropriate communication as an important way to protect our kids.

Build resilience

We’ve all heard by now that coping and self-care are essential to get through the day in 2020, but how do we translate that to practice with our families? Here are some ideas for building resilience as a family:

  • Identifying sources of strength and community can be highly protective. Modeling healthy habits and values for children and teens, finding ways to spend time together and support one another, and engaging in prosocial, or helpful, activities can be easy preventatives for stress. 
  • Maintain a routine as best as you can to support a child’s healthy growth. That means consistent sleep and wake times, an established place to do school-from-home each day if they are learning virtually, scheduling family meals, setting limits around screen time, and setting aside time for healthy habits (e.g. exercise, play, relaxation, spirituality, etc.). Routines promote stability and communicate safety to our kids.
  • Soothe the nervous system through relaxing activities. Taking deep breaths, mindfulness exercises, warm showers or tea, gentle stretching, prayer, being outside in the open air, and getting good sleep can be extra helpful in times of stress. Need some help? Try one of the several free, family-friendly relaxation or meditation apps online such as My.Life, SmilingMind, Insight Timer or UCLA Mindful.
  • Find your strengths as a family and use them to enjoy yourselves. What are you good at? Does your child have a special talent or interest? How can you share that with each other? Maybe you’re an excellent home chef and can start a family recipe night. Maybe your creative child can lead you in a weekly art lesson or science experiment. You know, that long-requested video game marathon might be just what you need… or a backyard campout, a day visiting your favorite park, or a FaceTime session with a long-distance relative. Making time on a routine basis to connect as a family can be strengthening. Keep it simple and fun! 
  • Share your gratitude. Things may not be perfect right now, but most of us are doing our best. Among many other benefits, expressing gratitude can increase happiness, help us focus on more helpful feelings, strengthen relationships and improve our quality of life. Sharing what you’re thankful for on a daily basis will help foster a sense of hope for the future and teach children the habit of “noticing the good.” 

So, yes. Confused. Angry. Scared. Astonished. Horrified. Numb... These things are all normal reactions to what we have seen and experienced this year. These feelings are true and deserve their space, and let us add to the list: 

Aware. 

Responsive. 

Compassionate. 

Grateful. 

Hopeful…

If you are concerned about your child or youth in your community experiencing significant signs of stress, they may benefit from speaking with a professional to better understand their risk of PTSD and to help connect them to the appropriate supports. To make an appointment with member of Texas Children’s Psychology Department, please call us at 832-824-9322, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Resources:

  1. What is Child Trauma?
  2. Info on Childhood PTSD (Eng/Span):
  3. National Child Traumatic Stress Network Facts on Community Violence
  4. The Greater Good Science Center at Seven Ways of Fostering Gratitude in Kids
  5. For more ideas on family wellness, check out: The Greater Good Science Center’s Monthly Happiness Calendar.

Post by:

Kimberly Gushanas, PhD