Over the past few years, Americans have experienced a series of events that have shifted our shared reality and reshaped life as we know it. For many—particularly young people in the formative years of their lives—these changes have had the potential to be highly traumatic.
From enduring the pandemic and missing out on major developmental milestones to witnessing constant political turmoil and acts of mass violence both at home and abroad, the current state of affairs can make young people feel as if their world is spinning out of control.
“Our youth have experienced so many challenging situations in the past few years alone,” explains Mary Kate Beckmen, a licensed clinical social worker and certified child and adolescent trauma practitioner at Meridian. “[They’ve] had to be extremely resilient and flexible.”
As a result, many children and adolescents could be displaying symptoms of traumatic stress. According to Beckmen, here’s what caregivers should look out for:
- Young children: demonstrating behavior of generalized fear and anxiety; experiencing separation anxiety; reenacting trauma through play or art; undergoing developmental regression in sleep, speech or toileting
- School-aged children: sharing worries about the safety of themselves, their friends or their family; telling traumatic stories (oftentimes overly dramatized); experiencing difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- Adolescents: Withdrawing from friends, family and activities; sharing complaints about headaches, stomachaches, shortness of breath or increased heart rate; abusing alcohol or drugs; sabotaging relationships
Although symptoms of traumatic stress are a cause for concern, mental health care providers like Beckmen can help equip young people with the tools they need to cope. In her own therapeutic approach, Beckmen often combines elements of art and play to tailor sessions to each individual patient.
“I do not believe there is a one-size-fits-all approach to therapy, especially when working with youth,” she explains. “It is important for clients to feel empowered to share their story however they feel most comfortable.”
Read on below as Beckmen discusses the causes, associated behaviors and coping mechanisms when it comes to traumatic stress among young people (the following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity).
You are a strong proponent of art and play in therapy. Why is this approach so effective for young patients?
MB: Children often don’t have the vocabulary to verbalize their feelings, and older youth often feel self-conscious having conversations surrounding emotional experiences. Artistic expression allows for youth to have an outlet for their thoughts and feelings without having to worry about being judged. Art also creates opportunities for independence, self-direction, decision-making and problem-solving in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. It can help create an environment for practicing having a calm, “quiet” body while thinking about topics that evoke negative emotions.
Why is having the opportunity to communicate negative emotions—which can be very difficult to do—so important for a patient’s recovery?
MB: When our bodies have experienced traumas, they go into “fight or flight” mode; our cognitive processes shut down in order for our bodies to physically protect ourselves. Until our bodies return to homeostasis following a traumatic event, we are unable to actually think cognitively about events or even our own emotions.
Returning to homeostasis may take some time depending on each individual person, but it is important that people don’t ignore their emotions once they have returned to feeling physically safe. It is equally as important to remember that actually being physically safe and feeling physically safe are two different things, especially in children.
Withholding recognition of emotional states often leads to emotions surfacing in other ways that are unrelated to the original emotion, which can lead to difficult interpersonal interactions and unexpected behaviors. Ignoring difficult feelings can even contribute to negative effects on our health, such as:
- Increased levels of anxiety and depression
- Negative self-confidence
- Emotional numbness
- Weight loss/gain
- Shorter lifespan
- Increased cancer risk
As life continues to move forward in the post-pandemic world, we still must face the reality that nearly 1.1 million Americans have died from COVID, meaning many people may have lost a loved one. Even in the absence of loss of loved ones, virtually all young people’s lives were severely disrupted. What does the healing process look like for children and adolescents?
MB: Traumatic grief can occur when someone experiences a sudden and unexpected loss. This is not necessarily just the loss of a person, but can also include the loss of feeling safe and the loss of a community as we knew it. When people talk about the stages of grief, they are typically referring to the five stages, coined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, these stages are not linear and if you have experienced one already, it doesn’t mean you won’t return to it again in the future. Different people handle traumatic grief differently; there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
In addition to the pandemic, the frequency in which mass shootings take place in our society today is deeply troubling and understandably the cause of a great deal of concern for many families. How can parents help children feel more secure?
MB: Although an uncomfortable and difficult conversation to have with children, caregivers need to start the conversation surrounding these traumatic events. Youth look to the adults in their lives for how to respond to these situations. An example I like to give caregivers is when a young child falls and scrapes their knee: if the caregiver has a big, negative reaction, the child will often begin to cry. On the flip side, if the caregiver seems to remain calm and just says, “Oops! It’s okay!”—the child often stands up and moves on without a big emotional reaction. With this being said, caregivers need to care for themselves first in order to bring their best selves to the conversation with their children.
What are your self-care recommendations for adults?
MB: I recommend using a HALTT check-in: are you feeling hungry, angry, lonely, thirsty or tired? Then, implement self-care! It doesn’t have to be time-consuming, elaborate or expensive. It can be as simple as making some tea, going for a walk, reading a book or talking to a friend. Parents should normalize meeting their own needs prior to their children’s needs. It is OK for caregivers to tell children that they need a minute before they can help them with something. And although it can feel unnatural following a traumatic event, it is important to continue routines as they were prior to the event.
What would you like to say to young people and their caregivers who may have experienced difficult, traumatic events in recent times and are struggling to make sense of it all?
MB: It is normal to be having a lot of feelings and anxieties following a traumatic event; and likely things aren’t making sense right away. In these situations, our bodies and minds are in self-protection mode, which will take time to move past. There is no right or wrong way to heal following a trauma, and the process is not linear or easy. Be kind to yourself during this time and know that your feelings are valid. Seek support from a trusted person or mental health professional if and when things become overwhelming.
Think your child or adolescent might benefit from speak to a dedicated mental health care provider? Meridian Psychiatric Partners might be right for you. Find out more about our child and adolescent mental health services today.