Becoming Trauma Informed: How to Help Yourself & Your Kids in a Crisis
Following the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, Jen was interviewed by Yael Braun, founder of Motherlucker, along with trauma therapist Stephanie Small. In this interview we discuss the importance of trauma awareness and education for both children and adults - and how we can begin to take steps toward healing.
Vegas. This week that word means something totally different than it usually does.
It’s hard not to feel a little helpless these days, between natural disasters, terrorism, and seemingly ever-present violence I can’t help but feel extremely lucky, grateful.. and kind of lost. I worry for the world that our children are inheriting.
I’m all for kumbaya unity and prayers, but I’m also for action and change. We need to offer immediate help; the obvious financial aid, supplies, and on-the-ground support. But beyond that how can we also help people heal? How can we raise a new generation who find emotional stability during adversity, and who deeply value genuine human connection, and peace? How can we teach empathy from the get go?
For help sifting through these questions, I turned to Jennifer Waldburger, MSW, a parent educator and mindfulness teacher who leads a mom group I am part of, and Stephanie Small, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist with several decades of experience working with children and adults following trauma.
YB: So first things first. How do we help ourselves, and our kids, when we see trauma unfolding somewhere in the world?
JW: I’m glad that you asked about helping yourself first. It’s counterintuitive, and incredibly difficult when you’re feeling so much pain or anxiety yourself, but as the parent, you need to take steps to calm your own nervous system before you’ll be able to help your child do that. There’s plenty of science that now shows that one person’s nervous system can have a contagious effect on others – for better and worse. So being proactive about regulating yourself can have a tremendous, and immediate, ripple effect on your kids and family. We’ll talk about specific steps you can take in a minute, but you can start with simply acknowledging your own upset internally, and taking several deep breaths.
SS: And then for verbal kids who are at school or on social media, get a sense of what your child already knows. If your child hasn’t been exposed to this incident – through media or from overhearing others talk about it – there is absolutely no reason to bring it up. But if he brings it up, ask him to share what he’s heard. That way you’ll know what you need to address or correct to the best of your ability. Validate all of his feelings. Then, after you share the right information and your child asks, “Why did the man do that?” your explanation can be: “Just like people sometimes have problems with their bodies, like a hearing impairment or a leg that doesn’t work, once in a long while someone has a severe problem with his brain. This man who did the shooting had a big problem with his brain. It didn’t work properly, and he did a horrible thing. He was not thinking correctly.”
Reassure him that most people’s brains work properly, and this kind of event is still relatively rare. But once in a while, someone’s mind doesn’t tell him what is and isn’t okay to do, and this man couldn’t stop himself from doing this dangerous act. Also, reassure your child that the day-to-day world they live in is safe. This heinous incident is not the norm, even though recent world events can make it seem like tragedy is striking more often. While as adults we are painfully aware that these horrific acts are increasing, we need to give reassurance to our children.
JW: For kids under 5, try to shield them from the details. Younger kids don’t benefit from knowing what’s going on, and seeing images of the incident or hearing you talk about your fears could make them unnecessarily afraid and cause separation anxiety to spike. Keep them away from TV and other media highlighting graphic details. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that helps kids and parents navigate the world of media, put out a helpful guide for talking to kids following a traumatic incident. You can find it here.
YB: When I watch the news, I have one of two reactions: I either start obsessing about a similar event happening closer to home, or at my child’s school – or I find myself feeling shockingly numb, because this kind of event is happening so often now. Is this normal?
SS: There are two types of trauma responses: primary and secondary. A primary trauma response occurs for someone actually going through a trauma – whether a natural disaster, a shooting, a death in the family or, say, physical abuse. Secondary trauma response is the emotional stress that comes when you hear about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. So hearing about the Las Vegas shooting on the news, for instance – being exposed to lots of images and talking about the shooting – could cause a secondary trauma response.
JW: Symptoms of primary trauma are obviously more heightened, but secondary trauma can cause reactions as well – and in either case, that reaction is based in neurology. When the brain senses danger, it immediately kicks the sympathetic nervous system into high gear. In response to the perceived threat, we’ll experience one of three reactions: fight, flight, or freeze. A fight response can include irritability or crankiness. A flight response can manifest as racing thoughts, or eating to numb the discomfort. A freeze response is more of a shutdown – having difficulty feeling your emotions, or feeling numb. It’s absolutely normal to experience any of these reactions – you just don’t want to stay stuck there.
YB: So what do we do when we’re in a fight-flight-freeze response? Are there some quick body-calming techniques we can do when these stress reactions
JW AND SS: Yes! We put together a short list of some of the most powerful practices we’ve come across to help regulate the nervous system – whether you’re coping with trauma, secondary trauma, stress, or a difficult life event. Each of these is appropriate for adults or kids:
Glue feet: Standing or sitting, press your feet firmly into the ground. You can wiggle your toes as much as you want, but hold your feet in place. The firm contact sends a signal to your brain that you are grounded, and safe.
Hugs: Aside from feeling good, hugs provide pressure-touch that helps us feel deeply contained – and calms the nervous system.
Ask for a hug from another adult, or offer a hug to your kids. Take big, deep breaths while giving or receiving a hug, and let your body relax. Never insist on hugging someone who doesn't want to be hugged following trauma.
Hug yourself: Take your right hand and place it on your side, right next to your heart. Take your left hand and place it on your right shoulder. Feel the gentle pressure of your hands holding your body,; this can have a deeply containing effect. Hold this position for several minutes – or until you feel calm. (This practice has been popularized by trauma expert Peter Levine.
4:4:8 breathing: Inhale to the count of four, hold for four, breathe out for eight. Younger kids can inhale to the count of two, hold for two, and breathe out for 4.
Squeeze hands: Place palms together, as in prayer position. Then fold fingers over each other into one big “fist.” Squeeze fingers as hard as you can. Then bring hands back to prayer position; take a big breath, and fold fingers over each other again and squeeze.
Hot chocolate breathing: Hold your hands together as if you were holding a cup of hot chocolate; slowly smell the hot chocolate, then slowly blow away the steam
YB: What about ways to be more proactive about trauma education, in case – God forbid – we should find ourselves in a crisis incident?
SS: There are lots of ways to build resiliency for both children and parents. Understanding how trauma affects the brain and body, and developing coping skills, will help you when life throws those inevitable curveballs. Think of this as a work in progress; every adverse experience that happens in your life or your child’s life is an opportunity to take more steps toward skill building. As much as you don’t wish to experience crisis in life, and you certainly don’t wish that for your child, there’s nothing you can do to prevent unexpected trauma. Focus instead on what you can do something about, which is how you respond to it.
JW: The truth is that we will all most likely find ourselves in some kind of crisis incident at some point – hopefully not a mass shooting, but a death in the family or an accident of some kind are also crises that can trigger a trauma response. In any trauma, safety comes first. Families should have evacuation plans in place – and regularly practice drills – for things like fires and earthquakes. Reassure older kids who may have similar drills at school that if a crisis ever happens and you’re not together, that you’ll be contacted and will come to them as soon as you can. Above all, teach yourself and your kids to stay grounded when stress spikes dramatically – to feel your feet on the ground and acknowledge the sensations in your body, to be aware of your breath – so you can think clearly and act quickly. The more you practice these skills during the normal ups and downs of daily life, the more prepared you’ll be to meet a crisis.
YB: OK, last question. As parents, how can we raise children who are emotionally healthy – who can feel their feelings rather than acting them out, and who know how to resolve conflict peacefully?
JW: I’ve dedicated my entire career to this question! The first step is knowing how to do these things ourselves – to commit to taking responsibility for our own emotional well-being and even more to the point, be willing to feel our pain rather than use food or drink or shopping or social media to avoid it. Pain that we refuse to address is bound to show up in our health, our relationships and families, our communities and the world at large. I’ve found mindfulness and meditation practice to be essential life skills that help build “muscle” around emotional regulation, resilience, and staying calm when the going gets rough. Even the busiest parent can find five minutes a day to meditate. These skills can also easily be taught to kids, and the earlier the better – this is why I’m so passionate about teaching mindfulness in schools.
SS: I agree wholeheartedly. Your children will pick up on your feelings. As parents, your nervous system regulates your child’s nervous system. Your children are looking to you to see if everything is really going to be all right. Do your best, for them.
JW: The ongoing challenge for parents is to set healthy limits for kids while staying emotionally connected. If you withdraw love and connection when your child acts out or gets upset, he will enter a spin cycle of shame and fear in his disconnection, and you’ll get more of the behavior you don’t want. Staying connected doesn’t mean coddling your child; it means that you are willing to be the co-regulator during times when he is having difficulty regulating himself, even while you are also setting a limit. The message is: “You are deeply loved; and I won’t let you (hurt, hit, cross a boundary, disrespect someone with your words).” When your child experiences his nervous system beginning to regulate while engaged in relationship with you, he feels a sense of trust in you, himself, and the world. His clear thinking comes back online, and he can make good choices again. As you do this consistently over time, he will internalize his own ability to regulate. And this is how we raise a whole generation of mature people who are relationally oriented – “we focused” – rather than “me focused.”
Stephanie’s interview on Atomic Moms podcast on how to parent through a crisis
Evenflow meditation app
Jennifer Waldburger, MSW, is co-founder of Sleepy Planet Parenting, which offers mindfulness-based classes, parent coaching and parenting groups to guide and support parents of children of all ages. Jennifer is co-director of Mindfulness at the Center for Early Education, the Stephen S. Wise School, and Woodcrest school in Los Angeles, and coauthor of the book Calm Mama, Happy Baby. She is also a meditation teacher on the Evenflow meditation app. For more information, visit sleepyplanet.com.
Stephanie Small, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist with several decades of experience working with children, adults and families after trauma. She was a mental health first responder in Newtown following the Sandy Hook shootings, in San Bernardino after the fires, and in Louisiana after hurricane Katrina. She has lectured throughout the country on the treatment of children with trauma and has a private practice in Los Angeles. For more information, visit stephaniesmall.net.