Experiences in Resilience Are Key To Healing Trauma
My youngest had a skiing accident in January of 2023 that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. Recovery was slow, but in January 2024 we practiced our final step of healing. Not from the bodily injury which luckily they have recovered from, but from the emotional one. The traumatic one. We returned to where the accident happened and we tried skiing again.
There were times when my child felt scared, but we talked and hugged and I encouraged them to move past their fear to experience what they were capable of because I knew they were ready for this. And then we went slow and we skied together.
In short we had a lesson in resilience.
And 3 hours later I couldn’t pull my child off the hill because they were having so much fun. And they were no longer skiing close to me, they wanted to do it on their own. They had experienced so much confidence building.
But the best part as a parent was that my child experienced resilience. That sometimes in life, bad things happen. But it does not mean it stays like that forever. They can overcome their fears and teach their body a new experience that helps to override the old. In short, they can help themselves heal their trauma.
When you want to have a similar lesson in resilience with your child, do the following:
1. Make sure you acknowledge and validate their feelings
Your child’s body is trying to keep them safe based on their past experience so it can produce some big and overwhelming feelings. Don’t gloss over those feelings, help your child to recognize them and where they may be coming from. And help them to co-regulate so those feelings don’t feel so overwhelming.
2. Help your child by letting them borrow your confidence
Your child will have doubts about trying something they feel is too hard or too scary. This is natural. Your job is to let them know you have confidence in them and that you believe they are ready so they can begin to believe it as well.
3. Go slow
It’s not about conquering it all. It is about helping your child stretch their tolerance while making them successful. Let them help guide the pace. Sometimes that means it is a small step in the direction of healing. And that is just fine. Keep having them take those small steps and they will get there.
The truth is my goal was to get my child back out to the same hill and onto skis. I was planning to spend the entire time on the bunny hill with them. And I was prepared to take a lot of breaks in the chalet.
And that approach gave my child the chance to set their pace. It was my child that wanted to slowly do more and begin doing the bigger runs. Which is why it was so impactful because my child was leading their own trauma healing.
While trauma itself is never fully erased from the body, your goal is to create an experience to overshadow it. Something to remember if past trauma sparks an emotional response. Because that will happen from time to time with trauma. But the more experiences in resilience you can support, the more your child will be able to better manage their trauma response.
The killing of George Floyd, the election, and the pandemic are a few of the tough topics over the last year. And now we have experienced more community trauma in the shooting of Daunte Wright.
Talking to a child about tough topics such as violence, racism, and death are never easy. But age appropriate talks are necessary to make sure your child feels safe.
Here are tips on how to talk with your child about tough topics.
What to say
Figure out your feelings first. It is okay to be upset and to let your child know you are upset. Talk with your child calmly about the events to give your child space to feel safe and ask questions.
If you get too emotional, take a break. Let your child know you are upset and are feeling overwhelmed by your feelings. Model how you can calm those feelings of overwhelm and emotion in a healthy way. This could be going for a walk, deep breathing or journaling.
Young kids may only hear snippets of what is going on or view images that are flashing on screens. Naturally, a child will try to form a story of what they see and hear to make sense of their world. When adults do not talk with young kids, they can make up something worse than what has happened. This can feel very scary to kids. Take the time to ask your child what they think is going on. Then, listen to their feelings. Talk to them broadly about the event and share your feelings as well. Let them know they can ask questions and share their feelings with you at any time.
Correct any misinformation your child shares with you. For older kids, talk about the importance of making sure information is correct. It can also help to talk about how to find good sources for information.
What to do
Ask about your child’s fears and feelings. Kid’s minds can paint vivid pictures, which can make them feel unsafe. Listen without dismissing their fears or feelings. Reassure them by reflecting back to them what they say. It can help to share your feelings as well as how you manage your feelings.
It’s okay to not have all the answers and not know how to respond. Let your child know that even though you don’t know what is going to happen, you will work keep them safe.
For older kids, you may have to limit their exposure to big events. Share with your child how upsetting events can affect their mental health and mood. Let them know that if they start to become too upset you will intervene to protect them.
Use it as a teaching moment
Talk about how others might not be safe, or feel safe, and what you can do to help support them. It is important to always reassure your child that you will work to keep them safe.
Be careful about spreading bias and racism when talking with your children. Your kids hear a lot more than they let on. Use the event as a way to open a conversation about equality and equity. Talk about how different people may experience the event. Then discuss how problem solving and action could change future events.
Talk about any good things that come from the event to show hope and resiliency. This lets your child know that bad things sometimes happen, but good things can come out of bad things. It also helps kids know that things do not stay bad for forever.
Having to talk with your child about big events can be hard, but it is necessary. It is okay if you don’t know what to say or you stumble. The important part is giving your child space to be heard and then letting them know they are safe with you.
Stress is a part of everyday life, for adults and kids. In a basic definition, stress is the result of a perceived or actual event that causes your body to physiologically react to meet a challenge.
In this article we will talk about the different kinds of stress, how you can tell if your child is experiencing toxic stress and how you can help your child cope with their stress. While this article is geared toward children, it holds true for adults as well so we encourage you to read it with both yourself and your child in mind.
How Our Body Reacts to Stress
An important starting point for talking about stress is an acknowledgment that everyone perceives stress differently, but all bodies react to stress in the same way. What does that mean?
It means, giving a work presentation may make you feel like someone is trying to push you off a cliff while your co-worker may actually leap at the chance to get up in front of a large group of people. The perception of the stress is different, but the body’s reaction to the stress of the event is the same for both of you. For example, both of your bodies will increase your heart rate, your senses will become sharper, your muscles tighten, etc. But once again, your perception may mean you experience these changes in your body as a sign that you feel completely overwhelmed where as your co-worker may perceive it as feeling completely jazzed.
So the bottom line is regardless of the event, and regardless of whether it is real or perceived, the same physiological response occurs in the body every time when the stress response is activated.
So what is happening?
When we start to feel stress, our body releases a natural hormone called cortisol, aka the stress hormone. Cortisol increases blood sugar, which the brain needs in order to solve the stressful situation and maintain energy for your muscles in case you need to move your body fast. But the triggering of cortisol does some other things that are not so obvious, like blocking growth, reproduction, sleep and immune functions. In little spurts, that’s fine. An event or perceived event occurs, our body turns on the stress response to handle the event, the event concludes, our body turns off the stress response and things go back to normal.
That’s the way the body is designed to work. But problems occur when there are too many stressful events or our stress response system gets stuck in the ‘on all the time’ position. Having a stress response on all the time can result in something called toxic stress, which can have devastating effects, especially in children.
So what is toxic stress, how do I know if my child is experiencing it and what can I do to stop it? To get to these answers we first need to talk about the different kinds of stress that we experience.
The 3 Different Types of Stress
There are 3 different kinds of stress.
Positive stress – Think of this as pregame jitters or when you actually need to save your life. Your body is physiologically trying to get you ready to perform the way you need to. This stress is viewed as both health and necessary.
Tolerable stress – This is triggered when a bigger or longer lasting stressor has occurred. For kids, this kind of stress is often a result of things like divorce, loss of a loved one, sustaining a major injury or living through a natural disaster. It can lead to some regression in behaviors or intense behaviors from kids, but over time children are able to recover. The key to keeping a large stressor in the tolerable stress zone is the child’s access to supportive adult relationships that help the child process and adapt to the event that has occurred. Through supportive relationships that help the child cope, the child can eventually stop their stress response and bring their body back into regulation, although it should be noted this can take a long time depending on the stressor and the individual child.
Toxic Stress – When the stress response is triggered too frequently, if the stressor is too intense, or the stressor is prolonged for long periods of time the body loses it’s ability to shut down the stress response. This leads to a disruption in the development of the child’s brain and other organ systems. Toxic stress, when it is not healed with supportive relationships and therapy, can lead to chronic physical and mental illness, learning and behavior problems, obesity, and even early death.
Because the consequences for toxic stress are so serious it is important to really understand how stress becomes toxic and how to prevent against it as well as heal from it. Let’s dive a little deeper into how toxic stress is different than healthy and tolerable stress.
First a little more about the biology behind stress. In any stress response, for any person, the body takes over. It’s part of an automatic survival response kicked off in the brain to help keep us alive. But what most people don’t realize is that this automatic biological response to stress, which is triggered for any stressful event, even if our life is not actually in danger, helps by actually hijacking our brain and behavior, meaning we are no longer fully in control when our body is in a stress response. The plane is on autopilot. The stress response temporarily gears certain things up and shuts other things down so that the body can respond to the threat automatically by fighting, fleeing or freezing.
Normally, a child’s body is able to turn off its stress response after a stressful event has passed when they are dealing with positive or tolerable stress. However, when a child is dealing with toxic stress, their body loses the ability to turn off its stress response. It is like the pilot trying to take back over, but none of the buttons on the plane are working so the autopilot stays on and the pilot doesn’t know how to get back in control to land the plane.
What Toxic Stress Does to a Child
So what does toxic stress do to a child, or an adult for that matter?
Because children are still growing and developing and they lack coping techniques which are learned as one grows, they are especially sensitive to intense, prolonged and repeated stress activation. This intense, prolonged and repeated stress activation can turn into toxic stress when there is no supportive adult relationship to help buffer against these stressors.
Supportive adults are able to provide a safe listening space and comfort for big, strong emotions. They can also help teach coping techniques, provide reassurance to the child and help when needed. When a child is unable to receive the support and help needed for dealing with stressors that are too intense or frequent the child moves from tolerable stress to toxic stress.
Toxic stress can adversely affect a child’s ability to learn and their memory. It also causes the brain to start sending false alarms to other parts of the brain, indicating there is stress or something scary even when there is not. This can appear as children responding with huge and intense reactions to small or non-existent stressors. It can also appear as laziness or inattentiveness in the school environment.
Toxic stress can also cause too much adrenaline to be released into the brain which can increase a child’s anxiety, create sleeping problems, interfere with a child’s ability to control impulses and make a child more aggressive. This can appear as children being labeled as defiant, aggressive or having ADHD.
The physiological changes produced by stress also lead kids to crave sugar and high fat foods because the brain is no longer accurately recognizing the body’s built in ‘feel good’ response known as dopamine. The craving of sugar and fat is a maladaptive coping strategy to try to make themselves feel better. This inability to accurately experience dopamine can also lead to an increase in risky behavior in children who are craving a rush of excitement, in order to counteract the muted ‘feel good’ response. This can appear as impulsivity, risky behavior and poor eating habits, food hoarding or obesity.
How to Know if Your Child is Suffering From Toxic Stress
So how do you know if your child is struggling with toxic stress rather than tolerable stress?
If your child is displaying any of the above behaviors it is worth investigating if something is going on in their life that is causing stress for a prolonged or intense period of time.
There is also a growing field of work on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which layout the 10 most common stressors in a child’s life that can cause toxic stress (listed below). It is important to note, that having one or more of these ACEs is not a guarantee that your child is experiencing toxic stress, it really depends on the support system in place for the child to help them deal with their stress. However it is equally as important to note that the more ACEs a child has, the more likely they are to suffer from the negative effects of toxic stress.
ACEs 1. Emotionally abused in the household 2. Physically abused in the household 3. Sexually abused 4. Emotionally neglected
5. Physically neglected 6. Parents are separated or divorced 7. Witnessed abuse to a maternal figure 8. Lived in a household with someone who had alcohol or chemical dependency 9. Depression or mental illness in the household 10. Someone in the household was incarcerated
In addition to the 10 ACEs listed above, it must be acknowledged that this list is not complete. Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) often face more adversity in life due to systemic racism and other challenges. There are more threats and stressors on a daily basis for BIPOC and their children are often exposed to stressors at an earlier age and higher rate than white children. Additionally, due to systemic racism and other adversities, BIPOC often have inherited the effects of toxic stress from previous generations. Recognizing this, additional adversity challenges are also acknowledged as causes of toxic stress.
Additional Adversity Challenges 1. Racism 2. Sexism 3. Poverty 4. Food and housing insecurity 5. Interpersonal and community violence
6. Bullying 7. Death of a family member 8. Historical trauma 9. Growing up in foster care 10. Justice system involvement
Furthermore, it is important to remember that your child can experience toxic stress from any traumatic event, even if it is not listed above. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that causes an overwhelming amount of stress. It can be caused by one or many experiences.
How to Help Your Child Prevent Against or Heal From Toxic Stress
So what can you do to keep your child in the positive and tolerable stress areas? How can you help protect your child from the effects of toxic stress even if they have ACEs or additional adversity challenges?
First, if your child has a history of toxic stress or a high ACE score it is important to get them into therapy as studies have shown that psychotherapy is a well supported intervention. Therapy can help a child re-regulate themselves and start the healing process. Go to our Community Organizations and Resources article to find recommended therapists and support services in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.
You can also reach out to us if you need help finding a therapist that can fit you and your child’s needs. The earlier the intervention the better because you can start to reverse the negative effects caused by toxic stress and help provide more tools to your child for future resiliency.
To help protect against toxic stress, the following steps can be taken by parents and caregivers to help a child stay in the healthy and tolerable stress zones.
Comfort your child. Show them love and affection. Studies have shown that simple physical affection between a parent or caregiver and a child after a traumatic experience can help regulate the child’s body and stress response.
Have conversations about how trauma is affecting them and their families. These conversations can occur even when the child is very young. Children have a need to organize their world and give meaning to the events that occur in their lives. When no one is there to talk with to help organize these big thoughts and emotions, children make up an explanation, which often leads a child to think “I made this happen”. This can breed anxiety and fear leading to an over activated stress response and toxic stress. It is important for a child to hear from a parent or caregiver that they are not to blame for stressful events occurring.
If you have a history of trauma, seek help for yourself. A parent’s own history with trauma can hinder their ability to act as a protective buffer to their child’s toxic stress. Self-care and healing are essential for being able to help a child who is stuck in a stress response.
Practice mindfulness, with or without your child. Mindfulness studies have shown to be very effective at reducing stress and helping to regulate the body. It has been further shown that a child benefits from mindfulness even if only the parent is practicing.
Help your child get exercise every day. It is important to get the body moving by doing some kind of moderate exercise like walking. It has been proven that exercise can both benefit learning and memory functions and help regulate the stress response. For combating toxic stress it is important to get the heart rate up for an hour every day.
Help your child get more sleep. While this is challenging when a child is experiencing toxic stress because physiologically the body is interrupting the sleep function in the body, maintaining a consistent bedtime, eliminating electronics at least an hour before bedtime and creating a chance at connection before bedtime with stories, songs or cuddles can help facilitate sleep.
Promote eating healthy. Again, this can be a tough one because the body is working against you because of the muted dopamine receptors, but trying to help your child make good food choices that will reduce fat and sugar and promote protein, fruits and vegetables will help stabilize their blood sugar levels and help them to regulate their bodies better.
Help to identify triggers to proactively address the stress response. Once you know your child’s source of stress and have talked about how the stress affects them, you can help teach them coping techniques for handling their stress. These coping techniques can be a hug, deep breathing or drawing, to name a few.
Practice self-care. As a parent to a child that is stuck in a stress response life can feel overwhelming and unpredictable. While our hearts want to remove the pain our child is suffering from, it is important to remember to take care of yourself at the same time. Take breaks and recognize if your child is triggering your own stress response.
A Message For Hope
While parents and caregivers can help strengthen their ability to act as a supportive buffer to their child, sometimes the adversity a child is experiencing cannot be reduced. Poverty, racism, community violence and other societal challenges can cause parents to feel powerless to protect their children. However, there is significant research showing just how powerful a supportive parent or caregiver can be at reducing the short and long-term effects of toxic stress.
The brain is an amazing organ and intervening when a child is under the age of 18, when their brain is still very plastic, provides the potential for significant change to occur. Also, adversity can foster several good outcomes such as resiliency, perseverance and a deepening of empathy and compassion.
To learn more about ACEs and the science behind it, we invite you to visit ACEs Too High or the CDC.
If you’d like to talk more about toxic stress and trauma as it relates to your child or how you can find support as a parent, we invite you to reach out and have a conversation with us.
Community Organizations and Resources for the Minneapolis/St. Paul Area
Autism & Special Needs Support Services
AUSM – Autism Society of Minnesota provides therapy, resources, trainings and event/camp information.
Autism Allies– Provides a resource guide of providers who have experience working with patients who have ASD, special needs and sensory challenges. The resource guide also provides several links to equipment and supplies to better meet special needs.
Family Voices of Minnesota – Peer to peer support services and connection with others who have a child with complex special healthcare needs or disabilities as well as resources and information.
Fraser – Providing a variety of support services for children of all ages with autism and special needs and their families.
Child Abuse Prevention & Support Services
Family Enhancement Center – Providing individual and family therapy as well as various groups and activities to address trauma sustained through physical, mental or sexual abuse.
Safe Horizon – Call 1-800-621-HOPE (4673) for resources for domestic and child abuse. You can also chat online on their website.
The Bridge For Youth – Provides runaway and homeless youth safe shelter, assists in the prevention and resolution of family conflicts and reunites families whenever possible.
Counseling Support Services
Rosemary Frazel– Minneapolis psychotherapist working with young children, families and individuals.
Help Me Grow Minnesota – Providing milestone and growth resources to ensure a child is developing appropriately. They also offer an in-home assessment for your child if you have any concerns about their development.
JFCS – Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Minneapolis offers a variety of social services support to the Jewish community, from early childhood to the elderly.
SOMFAM – Somali Youth and Family Development Center helps immigrant families find resources and support services for overcoming cultural and language barriers.
PCs for People – Providing low-cost computers, laptops, accessories and internet for those in need. They also offer electronics recycling.
Treatment Resources & Support Services
RS Eden – Supportive Housing, Recovery and Re-entry Services for those struggling with substance abuse or release from incarceration.
RS Eden Women’s Program-A substance abuse recovery program for women that provides support, housing and mental health services while keeping them with their children.
Wayside Recovery Center – With a focus on women seeking recovery treatment for drug use, they provide both outpatient and inpatient options with a holistic approach.
Wayside Recovery Center Family Treatment Center – The same amazing help delivered at Wayside Recovery Center, but addressing the needs and trauma of both mother and child. The Family Treatment Center keeps a mother together with her children during the mother’s residential treatment program to avoid the trauma of separation.
COVID Parenting Tips For Parents of Special Needs Children
Life during COVID has been hard for everyone. But for parents and caregivers who have a child that requires “more” due to a disorder, high sensitivity, giftedness, a learning disability, or trauma, COVID has been a an even more difficult struggle.
You may be struggling with getting consistent support for your child, maintaining consistency, getting a solid break to breathe, job loss, financial uncertainty, health concerns and the list goes on. Life is rough for everyone right now, but we recognize the challenges you face on a day to day basis are even more overwhelming at times. We get it because we also parent a child who requires more.
It certainly is a tough time, but we are here to remind you that you don’t have to go it alone.
Here are 7 COVID parenting tips to help make life during the pandemic a little easier.
1. Adjust your expectations
You may feel completely powerless and frustrated right now. You’re not alone. While we may normally be able to better handle the challenges life throws our way, this time during the pandemic is different. The regular support structures that we have put into place both for ourselves and our children may no longer be there to help out, or maybe they changed in a way that causes you to have more work or figure out a new system. Either way, it’s hard. Adjusting your expectations about what is doable and setting new goals that are achievable for the current environment will help both you and your child feel more successful.
2. Help your child find some perspective
As parents, we often forget what it is like to think like a child. Because a child has limited experiences and developing cognitive ability, they are limited in their ability to predict the future based on the past or to know that challenges will not last forever. For a child, their life experience is so short and insulated to their immediate world that the worries, stress and challenges brought on by COVID may seem overwhelming and never ending.
As a parent or caregiver, you can help your child by giving them some perspective and assurances that these circumstances will not last forever. Talk about past events that you or they experienced that felt like they lasted a really long time, and how they ended. You can also talk about the 1918 flu pandemic as a way to explain the story a pandemic follows and to talk about where this pandemic is in the story line.
3. Name it to tame it
COVID is a time of many emotions. Most people would identify the emotions they are experiencing these days as overall “negative” emotions, which we as humans often struggle with expressing. Whether you tend to ignore negative emotions or push through them, it’s time to take a different approach.
Emotions are made to have a life cycle, but when we ignore the hard emotions that make us feel negatively we are actually causing those emotions to hang on in us and get stuck in the cycle. This means we feel hard emotions longer and can have a harder time transitioning to a different state of being.
The best way to solve this problem is to acknowledge the feelings you are feeling. By naming your emotions and allowing yourself to sit with it, whether it is sadness, anger, fear, frustration, etc. you can actually help bring yourself out of it faster. So the next time you or your child is having a tough time, name what you are feeling. Realize that children may need your help putting names to the strong emotions they are feeling.
Once named, acknowledge that you or your child are feeling the way you are feeling and tell yourself/your child that it is okay to feel that way, that a lot of people are feeling that way right now. You’ll be surprised how fast an emotional disposition can change once you actually start acknowledging your feelings.
4. Find the next best thing
Life can feel hard and sad when we take notice of all the things we are missing due to COVID. This can produce an even more pronounced emotional response in children who are still developing their coping techniques as well as their emotional intelligence and executive functioning. So in addition to naming your emotions (Tip 3), it is important to help your child figure out what the next best thing is.
In doing this, you are helping your child learn problem solving skills, acknowledge their options when circumstances are outside of their control, and build resiliency. It’s okay to say that it is not something you would have chosen, but that you are now doing the next best thing. Re-framing choices and circumstances in this light can help children, and adults, feel more control and power in their lives, which helps with overall mental health.
5. Get outside
There are plenty of sources that explain how beneficial the great outdoors can be for mental health. It has also been reported that COVID has increased a lot of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. So even if you are not the outdoorsy type, try to get outside for a walk at least once a day for 15-20 minutes.
If you are looking for something a little more creative than a walk, try boot skating/ice skating, sledding, a nature scavenger hunt or check out your local nature centers for a list of outdoor activities. For kids, usually the hardest part is getting them out the door, but once they are out they generally find a plethora of things to do and play with.
If you have a hard time getting your child out the door, set up a consistent time everyday so that it becomes a part of their routine.
6. Get moving
On the days when it is too cold to go outside, or maybe you have just lost motivation to make it out the door (because let’s face it some days are just like that), make sure you and your child are getting some kind of physical movement during the day. Walk like a crab around the living room, better yet have a crab race with your child, walk like a bear, do some yoga or jumping jacks. Even 3 minutes of activity can get the heart rate up and can change the disposition of a child who is struggling.
7. Remember trauma can be triggered
COVID has brought illness and death to many people. For adults and children who have lived through a severe illness or death of a loved one, even if unrelated to COVID, the unknowns of COVID, the images spread in Social Media and the news, and the death of so many can trigger trauma responses.
If you or your child have trauma in your past it is important to open up communication and have age appropriate talks about COVID as well as the fear being felt. It is important to remember that trauma can be triggered in many different ways, but that when trauma is triggered, it needs be met with compassion and understanding.
Responding in anger, frustration or by withdrawing will worsen the trauma reaction and result in a more intense emotional response. Try to remember the person/child is coming from a place of fear and reflect back to them what they are expressing in their words and actions. Remember trauma can be triggered anytime and it takes time to process. Being willing to talk openly as many times as needed about a child or adult’s fears is one of the best ways you can support someone who has a history of trauma.
The above COVID parenting tips are meant to help the majority of parents. Parents and caregivers who love children who struggle with certain disorders, high sensitivity or trauma may need more support during this time that is individualized to their needs. If you would like to discuss personalized options for your child, we invite you to schedule a free 30 minute chat with us so we can tailor tips that would work best for your family.