Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Collective Trauma: 3 Coping Tools for Adults, Children, and Families

During the extremely difficult events of the past week, I found myself not wanting to turn on the TV, or view my Facebook page, or see what is trending on Twitter. Although I want to stay informed, I feel overwhelming sadness over the ongoing traumas such as environmental disasters, mass shootings, and chronic political turmoil which  are continually being replayed, re-tweeted, re-posted, etc. And with a cloud of anxiety hovering around me, I am wondering when the next tragedy is going to happen.

Cautiously surfing through the TV stations one evening, I stumbled on a calm rational news contributor who reported on the "collective trauma" we are all experiencing. She acknowledged that although the recent as well as past plethora of killings and devastating hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes have become almost a "norm" in our society, familiarity doesn't diminish the emotional, psychological, and physical toll it is taking on adults, children, and our families in general.

Collective trauma takes its toll.
Because I have worked extensively in  the areas of trauma, I would like to offer 3 coping tools for families. They are really just common sense. But as we all are reeling from the fall-out, it doesn't hurt to call them to our attention.  

It is important to remember that if we "as adults" are having a hard time grappling with these various atrocities, imagine how frightening and unsettling it is for our children.

3 Coping Tools for Families 

1. Curtail exposure and access.

Because we are connected to our technology almost 24/7, it is difficult "not" to be exposed to the on-going coverage of the horrific events. However, the more "trauma" we place upon ourselves, the more it will affect our well-being. And although experiencing trauma at any age is damaging, adults - to varying degrees - are able to compartmentalize their emotions, allowing them to navigate their days with manageable levels of disturbance. However, children, whose brains are not fully developed or equipped to process such horrific acts, are not able to do so. For their undeveloped minds, witnessing or watching a horrific incident is like throwing mud onto a wall and watching it stick. It stays with them and they relive it. It shows up in their dreams, in flashbacks, and in their thoughts,behaviors, and feelings. Therefore, it is extremely important to curtail not only our exposure but that of our children's. A few suggestions include the following:
  • Adults, monitor your intake. I recommend an hour to two at the most of listening to or watching the news, especially if it is just rehashing what you have already seen or heard. It is also best if your viewing or listening time in "not" right before going to sleep. 
  • Adults, keep a pulse on how much time you are spending on the social networking sites where the events and/or others' opinions and interpretations of them are being shared. Be mindful of how you are feeling and make adjustments accordingly. 
  • Adults, view or listen to the news when you have "alone time", without your children present.
  • Adults, monitor your children's access very closely. Although maturity levels are important to keep in mind, I believe children under the age of 14 should not be viewing traumatic events. (We will discuss talking to them about it in the next section.) 
You know yourselves and your children best, so adjust the guidelines as needed.

 Remember, once our minds have been exposed to anything - especially a trauma - 
it is difficult to eradicate its images. 

Protecting our children's  minds.
2. Communicate (age appropriately) about the traumatic events and the feelings around them.

Because of these ongoing atrocities, emotions and feelings are running rampant. There is tremendous loss, despair, anger, frustration, and fear. There is helplessness and hopelessness. And the list goes on. Although there is much out of our control, within our families (and other safe environments), we can communicate about the traumatic events and our feelings around them. It is also important to remember that although we may have shielded our children from firsthand accounts of the traumatic events, they are quick to pick up on our words, thoughts, and actions. They can easily sense tension, anxiety, and fear and they will take on those emotions.  A few suggestions include the following:
  • Adults, talk with one another about what you are feeling and thinking. Do so in safe environments which are conducive to healing and which are constructive in nature.
  • Adults, talk with your children.  First, ask them what they know.  Invite them to ask you questions.  This lets you know their level of awareness and understanding. Share with them what you feel is age appropriate or clarify any misinformation or misunderstanding. Then, ask them what they are feeling. Really listen to them. Avoid telling them "how" they should feel. Normalize their fears and anxieties. Comfort them and love them.
  • Adults, remain truthful with your children.  At the same time, reassure them and let them know you will do whatever it takes to keep them from harm. Be their safe harbor. 
Remember, although talking about our feelings may not change what is going on around us,
it helps ease the fear and anxiety inside of us. 

Really listen to our kids.

3. Cultivate compassion and caring for one another.

One of the hopeful signs for me during the past few weeks are the stories of compassion, of comfort, and of caring for one another. I know they "aren't enough" and our country has much work ahead to do, but it is important to remember there are countless individuals who are really good people - who carry a deep human regard and respect for all.  Within our families and our communities, it is important to grab hold of those moments within our daily lives which lend themselves to cultivating compassion and caring for one another. Although this may sound like a "no-brainer", when we have been inundated with traumatic events, we can often lose sight of what is in front of us. It is vital that we are purposeful and deliberate in our expressions of kindness and love. A few suggestions include the following:
  • Adults, make family time a priority. If you are already doing so, great!  Whether it is at the dinner table, or going to and from a sporting event, or completing chores, take time to talk to each other, listen to one another, and enjoy each other's presence.
  • Adults, with all the heaviness around, plan fun activities with your children: a family dinner out, go to the movies, play games, or camp out in your backyard!! Give yourselves permission to laugh, together!
  • Adults and children, if you watched or listened to some of acts of heroism, compassion, or courage, talk about them. Bring out their positive healing qualities and use them as teachable moments.
  • As a family, give back to your school, neighborhood, place of worship, or community in ways which are meaningful. When our souls are hurting, we can lift our spirits by helping others.
Make the most of family time.

In closing, "collective trauma" is a serious issue. I'm afraid it is one that may be with us for some time to come. In addition to the above coping tools, I challenge myself each day with the following question:

Will  my actions and attitudes propagate harm or will they promote healing?

Committing further to my mission of wellness - promoting healing in ways that are within my means - I think to myself...

What a blessing it would be to have "collective compassion". 
Collective Compassion!

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