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Coping after Tragedy

Therapy provides children with help after trauma

By: Tracy Keller

Tragedy has struck numerous communities across the country within recent months, creating a nation in mourning and leading to questions regarding the effectiveness of current gun control laws. Political pundits have exploited the tragedies to garner sound bites while Second Amendment supporters have used it as a rallying cry to show their constitutional rights and freedoms. Meanwhile, as the media circus over the great gun control debate plays out, victims—many of whom are very young—have been left on their own to cope with the various tragedies and to make sense of the senseless while trying to find firm footing on shaky ground.

Marriage and family therapy is often used as a catalyst for coping with trauma, especially that of which occurs at a young age. Karyl McBride, Ph.D., and licensed marriage and family therapist, points out in a December column for Psychology Today following the Newtown, Conn. school shooting that many of the most recent victims of the nation’s mass shootings have been very young children who don’t have long life histories. Rather, Dr. McBride notes, what they now have are histories of childhood trauma. Dr. McBride goes on to address the imperative need for parents to develop strong relationships with their children that are based on open lines of communication where triggers that could lead to depression, anxiety or aggressive behavior are quickly identified and immediate help is pursued through therapy and counseling.

Identifying the Signs of Trauma in Children

Adults must realize that most children deal with tragedy and trauma differently. Nevertheless, there are some key indicators that a child is struggling with a traumatic event based on various developmental stages that should alert adults in close contact with a child, including parents, guardians, teachers, coaches and more. Identifying these signs early on can help limit the long term effects of trauma on a child and help them to overcome emotional and mental distress.

  • Preschoolers: Children under 5 have limited verbal communication skills in which to express their feelings and emotions. When faced with trauma, they require reassurance, comfort and support from their parents and other adult figures that they are safe and loved. Signs that a child might be adversely dealing with the aftershocks of a trauma include bedwetting, thumb-sucking or increased clinginess.
  • Adolescents: School children between 5 and 12 are more aware of their surroundings and have the ability to take a cognitive approach to processing trauma. They may have profound questions about a situation or event; adults should do their best to be open and honest with their responses. Limit your child’s television viewing to protect them against a deluge of media coverage that could spark increased distress. Additionally, encourage your child to express themselves through art and play for a healthy release of emotions and self-expression during difficult times. If your child experiences sleep disturbances such as nightmares, poor concentration or unexplained aches or pains, he or she may be experiencing anxiety or other effects of trauma.
  • Teenagers: Teenagers have more developed reasoning abilities and a broader capacity to process complex information in the event of a tragedy or traumatic event. Create open lines of communication with your teen and encourage them to talk about their feelings to you as well as with their peers and other adults, including teachers. If your teen comes to you with questions about a tragic event or situation, provide clear and direct responses in order to facilitate an honest discussion. You should seek help if your teenager is expressing feelings of anger, depression or stress, having difficulty eating or sleeping or has lost interest in school and other activities following a traumatic event.

Therapy in the Face of Tragedy

Therapy can be an effective remedy for children to relieve feelings of stress, anxiety, depression or anger after a major event.

According to Ida Zarrabizadeh, marriage and family therapy professor at Touro University Worldwide, a child can benefit greatly by going to a therapist after a tragedy.

“(The child) will have the opportunity to openly talk about the experience and how it as affected them,” said Zarrabizadeh. “They will have an open and nonjudgmental space to work through their feelings and, at the same time, learn ways they can better cope after the circumstance.”

Zarrabizadeh notes that therapy can decrease the chance of a child experiencing more intense and chronic issues down the road.

Families affected by tragedy may seek the help of a marriage and family therapist for a holistic approach to mental and emotional healing. Marriage and family therapists are trained to address individual and relationship issues that may cause emotional or mental distress. Alternative therapy methods, including art and music have been shown to greatly improve the state of mind of individuals who experienced a traumatic event.

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn. tragedy, children ages 4 to 7 were invited to participate in a creative arts therapy and reading program. Organizers read books to children and facilitated arts and craft projects that related to the stories. Mary Pellicci Hamilton, owner of Art for Therapy (the location of the Newtown event), stated in a local news article that “art is a way for children to make sense of their chaotic worlds during the midst of crisis.” Hamilton noted that art therapy provides children with a natural therapeutic method of self-expression for healing and discovery.

The concept of art therapy is founded in the innate nature of the creative process and its ability to help people better express their feelings and emotions; some young trauma survivors may lack the vocabulary or language necessary to fully articulate their complex feelings.

Music therapy has also been shown to have positive effects on patients suffering from traumatic injury or events and was first used to help World War II veterans who suffered brain injuries during battle. Much evidence has been collected to support the effectiveness of music therapy in the recovery of brain activity and function, including language, memory, emotion and movement.

Gabrielle Gifford, a former member of the House of Representatives and survivor of a gunshot wound to the left hemisphere of her brain, received music therapy during the early stages of her treatment, which helped her to regain her speech. Treatment methods using music therapy, including music speech stimulation and melodic intonation therapy, have been shown to help patients suffering from brain damage affecting the communication cortex to learn to speak again. Gifford’s music therapist, Maegan Marrow, a certified brain injury specialist at TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston, said in a statement to ABC News that the brain needs lots of repetition and consistency to heal itself.

Coping with tragedy can be difficult, and it is okay to seek treatment from a professional to avoid distress, anxiety or anger. If you or your child has negative emotional or mental reactions to a traumatic event, seek help from a therapist or counselor.

* The information given in this article is not intended as a substitute for professional medical, marriage and family therapy, and/or psychological advice.

Touro University Worldwide (TUW) believes in the transformative power of continued education. TUW students are committed to social justice, intellectual pursuit and philanthropic duty and receive a well-rounded educational experience focused on the holistic development of the individual. An advanced degree from TUW can change your career trajectory and your future putting you on a path towards advancement and lifelong success.

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