By Jennifer Kurtz, LCSW – Dec. 24, 2019

Prior to coming to Youth First as a school social worker, I worked with the homeless for 7 years.  Many of the men, women, and children I worked with were staying in a car or in an unfamiliar shelter, maybe living in a hotel, or staying with family or friends in an overcrowded home. 

While this is not healthy for an adult, it can have an even bigger impact on the mind of a young child. When I mention childhood trauma you may think of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse to a child. But there are other traumatic things children experience:  witnessing violence between adults, being separated from a loved adult due to alcohol or drug use, mental illness of a family member, incarceration of a parent, illness of a loved one that pulls family away, lack of food for the entire family, or witnessing a shooting or devastation left by a natural disaster (either in person or on television). 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative (NCSTI) reports that more than two thirds of children experience at least one traumatic event by the age of 16. 

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that children between the ages of 3 to 6 exposed to trauma may have difficulty focusing or learning in school, may be unable to trust others or make friends, may show poor skill development, may lack self-confidence, and may experience stomach aches or headaches. These difficulties in elementary school have the potential to affect children into their teen and adult years, repeating the cycle onto their own children.

How can we help our children as parents and caregivers?  The Child Mind Institute encourages the following tips to help children after a traumatic event:

  1. Remain calm
  2. Allow children to ask questions
  3. Listen well
  4. Acknowledge how the child is feeling
  5. Share information about what happened
  6. Encourage children to be children (to play and do activities)
  7. Understand children may cope in different ways
  8. Help children relax in breathing exercises
  9. Watch for signs of trauma
  10. Know when to seek help 
  11. Take care of yourself

The National Survey of Children’s Health found that children who have family help them build resilience respond well to stress.  Resilience can be built through having caregivers who believe in a child’s future, teaching children to calm themselves and regulate their emotions, being involved in the community and having social connections.

There is a video on YouTube about a heartwarming IKEA ad in Spain entitled, “IKEA The Other Letter.”  The children are asked to write a letter to The Three Kings (the equivalent of Santa in Spain) asking for things they want for Christmas. Most ask for material items. They are then asked to write a letter to their parents. From their parents they ask for experiences such as eating dinner as a family, reading a story together, playing soccer together, playing cowboys together, and just spending quality time together in general. 

So often we want to give our children material items, thinking “things” will make them happy.  Although kids do want toys and materials items, quality time is even more valued and needed by them, especially when there has been a traumatic event. Spend time together this holiday season, and help your kids build resiliency that will see them through many of life’s disappointments and sorrows.