Tag trauma

Some (Hopefully) Calming Thoughts About School Violence

domestic violenceRecent accounts of school violence freak most of we parent-lunatics out. This is understandable as the stories are horrific, sensational and in our face when we access the media. I mean for this entry, however, to have a calming effect. I have two primary messages: (1) the rates of school violence appear to be either stable or on the decline and (2) there are multiple preventative measures available.

Rates of School Violence

The Center for Disease Control does a national survey of the risky behaviors engaged in by high school students every couple of years. It is called The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. In the 2013 version (which reported on data collected in 2011), over 15,000 high school students were surveyed. What follows are comparisons of rates of violent behaviors across years of the survey:

Carried a weapon

1991: 26%

2011: 17%

Carried a gun

1993: 7.9%

2011: 5.1%

Carried a weapon on school property"not okay"

1993: 11.8%

2011: 5.4%

A student was threatened or injured on school property

1995: 8.4%

2011: 7.4%

 A student was in a physical fight on school property

1993: 16%

2011: 12%

While any numbers above 0% call us to action, trends such as these may help us to keep the dialogue on track and in perspective.

2 thumbs upPreventative Strategies

I do not mean for this list to be anywhere near comprehensive. What I mean to share are four strategies that, if universally applied, would likely significantly and powerfully reduce the rates of school violence.

√ Maintain, expand or develop school based anti-bullying programs. The entire spectrum of bullying behaviors seems to synergize the risk for violence. Thus, school districts do well to develop and support comprehensive anti-bullying programs; this should include cyber bullying, relational bullying and racial bullying.

√ Do not let youth have unsupervised access to firearms. This is such a no-brainer that I feel like I’m insulting your intelligence to say more. But let me press a little bit by quoting just one of the many studies on point. This study is referencing profiles of youth who had completed suicide: “Firearms…were the manner of death in the majority (70%) of victims whose homes contained firearms.” (I’m a just a lowly psychologist. But, I almost wonder if it would make for good social policy to hold parents responsible if a youth gets access to a gun in their home and hurts himself/herself or someone else.)

√ Promote each child’s competencies. I’ve elaborated on this theme in this blog african woman's half faceand in my parenting book (e.g., methods for identifying competencies). But if a child has instrumental (i.e., specific tasks he or she is good at) and/or social competencies, and has regular opportunities to manifest such, that child possesses a mighty protective shield against life’s slings and arrows. As a related issue, I would suggest putting any vulnerable youth on display at school for a unique and positive contribution (e.g., the kid who raises and lowers the school flag, takes care of a mascot, helps the janitors, holds doors in the morning).

√ Promote each parent spending one hour each week one-on-one with each child doing special time. Readers of this blog, or my parenting book, know where I’m coming from with this. To summarize a complex discussion: I believe that an hour of special time a week is to a child psychologist what a daily apple is to a child’s pediatrician (i.e., as in “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”). Schools would also do well to create opportunities for teachers or administrators to spend one-on-one time with vulnerable youth (e.g., share a lunch), if only once or twice a month.

In closing let me offer that those wishing to develop strategies for discussing school violence with their kids might find some helpful tips in this article.

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Six Tips For When Your Child Has Experienced an Injustice

We parents do everything in our power to protect our children from experiencing injustice, including lobbying school personnel, coaches, other parents and law enforcement officials. However, it is inevitable that everyone experiences injustice, from the mild to the truly dreadful and horrifying. What follows are six tips for responding to these experiences after you’ve done all that you reasonably can or should to prevent the injustice or right the wrong.

#1: Let your child experience her pain. It hurts to experience an injustice. Empathic statements can help.  “You deserved that leadership position, what happened is wrong and it makes sense that you’re in pain over it.” “Being bullied is a shaming, awful experience and I understand how hurt you feel.” “Being arrested when you’re innocent is something no one should ever have to go through. You must feel more terrible than I can even imagine.”

#2: Let your child know that everyone goes through this and sometimes it happens because a person has displayed excellence. We all want to believe that we live in a just world where all wrongs can be righted and where virtuous, hard-working people do not have bad things happen to them. We all want to live in a world where others do not respond to our gifts and successes with jealousy, envy or resentment. But, in my experience, such perspectives are right up there with Disney’s “happily ever after” concept. Just as all bodies living in the world are exposed to germs and viruses, and need to learn to respond effectively to them to survive and thrive, our psyches need to learn to respond effectively to injustice when it inevitably comes our way.

#3: Teach the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.” Regardless of one’s spirituality, the wisdom behind this psychological model is sound. Indeed, it is often used in helping people to recover from addictions because it can be the antidote to many kinds of madness that facilitate self-medication.

#4: Look for the opportunity imbued within all pain. The pain must be given its due for this to work well; this is not about being in denial about the injustice, or being pollyannaish about it. However, once the pain has been given its due think of the injustice, as one poet put it, as a dragon guarding treasure. Resilient people think this way: they take the hit and expect to become better because of it. Teaching your child how to do this at a young age is a major gift. (To read more on this theme see my blog entry Failure: An Important Part of a Psychologically Healthy Childhood.)

#5: Timing is everything here, but let your child know about injustices you’ve experienced, including your thoughts about what you did in response that was effective, ineffective or some combination of both. (Of course, you’re going to want to consider what material is developmentally appropriate for your child. For a discussion that highlights similar issues see my blog post Helping Children Cope with Scary News.)

#6: Teach unilateral forgiveness. In my judgment unilateral forgiveness is the psychological equivalent of an ironman triathlon. Yes, bilateral forgiveness (when the other person has acknowledged fault and has asked for forgiveness) can be, especially when the wrong has been mighty, a marathon unto itself. But, forgiving when the other person has not asked for it, or even feels justified in the injustice they’ve perpetrated, puts a person on one of the highest psychological roads a human can traverse. This is not the same thing as denying the injustice. This is not the same thing as tolerating the injustice or not protecting oneself from future manifestations of it. It is to say that bitterness, revenge and products of their sort are like poisons that hurt the victim most of all while forgiveness promotes healing and the capacity to not become owned by the injustice. Just as the case with training for an ironman triathlon, it takes lots of time and practice–often for many years and with many stumbles along the way. And, it can’t be forced. But, it’s a journey worth any effort we can offer it, both for ourselves and for our children. (To read a great self-help book on forgiveness see Forgiveness is a Choice.)

In closing, let me suggest that you may need to take additional steps if your child has been traumatized by the injustice. For a discussion on these issues see my blog post Ten Steps to Take if Your Child is Exposed to a Traumatic Event or click here to find a psychologist in your area.

Ten Steps to Take if Your Child is Exposed to a Traumatic Event

What it means to be exposed to a traumatic event varies greatly. The exposure can be direct (it happened to your child) or indirect (it happened to someone your child cares about). It can be a single event or repeated over time. Vulnerable children might also experience traumatic reactions when learning about something terrible that happened to strangers. Moreover, traumatic experiences themselves vary greatly (e.g., watching dad physically abuse mom and witnessing mom get hit and killed by a car are both traumatic, but one more than the other). For this reason, what follows can only be considered general advice that may need adaptation across a range of traumatic experiences and reactions.
#1. Try to keep adaptive rituals in place. Rituals are islands of stability in the torrential currents of our culture. Rituals promote a sense of stability and safety in a child’s life. One of the ways in which traumatic events are most damaging is in how they fracture a child’s basic assumptions about stability and safety. So, try to maintain as many of your usual daily, weekly, seasonal and special occasion rituals as you can. (See Chapter Four of my parenting book for an expanded discussion and a list of methods for pulling this off.)
#2. Monitor your child’s health habits. When excessively stressed our children may start to suffer impairing changes in their sleep, diet and level of physical activity. A brief period of these kinds of reactions is typical. However, if such persists for weeks it is a good idea to get assistance (see tip #9).
#3. Give your child the opportunity to discuss the trauma but do not force the issue. It’s important for kids to know that you, or others who are available (e.g., therapists, school personnel), are interested and willing to discuss the trauma whenever your child likes. However, sometimes kids cope by not talking about what is bothering them. Also keep in mind that younger children may deal best with these kinds of feelings by drawing or playing.
#4. If your child is traumatized by misfortune that has befallen someone else, engage him or her in a plan for making a contribution to reparative efforts. Perhaps your child might draw a picture of support, or help with some volunteer project (e.g., making food, conducting drives), or offer prayers. Making an active contribution can combat a feeling of powerlessness.
#5. If your child is traumatized by something that happened to him or her be careful to not give her or him the idea that it’s not okay to hurt around you. We parents hurt when our kids hurt, and often worse. So, it is natural for us to try to convince our kids, and ourselves, that they are not really in pain or that they are over their pain, when that isn’t the case. It’s very tough to provide empathy for the pain our kids experience, and to stay with them in that experience until they are ready to move on, but doing so is a major gift.
#6. Try to avoid blaming yourself. “If only I had…” is a very normative reaction for we parents when our kid has suffered a trauma. However, it’s rarely helpful as the resulting guilt and shame can have the paradoxical effect of making us less available for the kinds of responses that promote healing and resolution. (Of course, if poor choices or poor judgment on your part has caused the trauma, that is much trickier and would make #9 an even more important step to take.)
#7. Once your child’s pain has been given it’s due (and judging that point in time is an art form unto itself), help him or her to look for the opportunity imbued within all crises. That is, crisis = (pain/2) + (opportunity/2). As one poet put it, the pain is like a dragon guarding treasure. Or like Khalil Gibran put it “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Teaching our children to think about trauma in this way is a major way to promote resilience.
#8. Be on the watch for signs of depression (e.g., persisting depressed and/or irritable mood, diminished concentration, not taking pleasure in activities that used to be fun, appetite and/or sleep disturbance, self-blame, hopelessness, harmful thinking) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (e.g., avoiding situations, things or people that remind your child of the trauma, experiencing withdrawal from others or life in general, reliving the trauma in dreams or flashbacks, doing psychological back flips to avoid being reminded of the trauma).
#9. If you see signs of mental illness, or if the trauma is severe, please do not go at it alone. This is complicated business. So, for your child’s sake, your family’s sake and your sake, seek out the services of a qualified child psychologist or mental health professional. (See Chapter Ten of my parenting book for detailed guidance along these lines.)
#10. Don’t forget about self-care. Our self-care can be one of the first things we jettison off a ship that feels like it’s sinking. However, doing so is like throwing the life jackets overboard first. What good am I for my child if I’m breaking down? (Please see Chapter Seven of my parenting book for a detailed review of issues and methods.)

Helping Children Cope with Scary News

Many parents are confused about what to say to their children after scary news stories appear in the media (e.g., acts of terrorisms, school shootings, hurricanes, etc.). This entry addresses  three qualifications, three guidelines and two common questions.

Three qualifications:

1.    Most children who were free of psychiatric problems prior to being exposed to a trauma do not develop a psychiatric condition after the exposure. Children can be surprisingly resilient.

2.    Advice from mental health professionals is most effective when it supports and informs, but does not supplant, your intuition. You are one of the world’s leading experts on your child. Suggestions from experts should be filtered through that lens.

3.    Some of the suggestions below would not apply for children who have become symptomatic; for such children it would be best to consult with a mental health professional in order to develop a tailored plan.

Three guidelines:

1.    Intermittently let your children know that you are available to talk but do not try to force a conversation. Children are like adults; sometimes we cope by trying to put something out of our mind. Assuming the news story has upset her, your child might not be in the mood to talk about such at the same time as you. Following your child’s lead can communicate that you are sensitive and respectful.

2.    Try to create a venue and manner that makes it easier for your child to communicate with you. For instance, some older children might find it easier to discuss difficult feelings and thoughts while not making eye contact (e.g., while driving or waiting for a movie to start) while younger children may communicate through their play. Regardless of the age range, though, it is important to not jump in too quickly with reassurances. Once we parents start self- disclosing, even if for the purpose of being reassuring, it can have a dampening effect on our child’s self-disclosure.

Once your child has finished with his or her initial statements reflect back what you’ve heard and provide empathy (e.g., “I understand why you could be feeling more scared these days”). This may cause your child to tell you even more. When it seems that your child is finished that would be the time to offer your thoughts and feelings.

3.    Let your awareness of your child’s developmental level and/or vulnerabilities guide your self-disclosure. No matter your child’s age, it is important to not say things that you do not really believe. Doing so is often ineffective and may damage your credibility. Selective truth telling would seem to be advisable; selective based upon your child’s developmental level and vulnerabilities.

For younger or vulnerable children you may want to only share those thoughts and feelings that are positive. For older children, who are also doing well, you may choose to share some thoughts and feelings that are unpleasant. Sometimes life is painful; honestly acknowledging that, with an older child who can handle it, can be educative and facilitate a closer relationship.

Two common questions:

1. What do I say to my children about our safety?

Much of this will be determined by how you rationally answer this question for yourself. What do you believe are the odds that your family will experience a similar trauma? Once you have answered these questions for yourself, selective truth telling–based on the principles listed above– may be advisable.

2. Is there anything I can do to protect my children from all the fallout?

Any of the following may help:

• Aggressively pursue your own adjustment. If I am afflicted I will have a more difficult time helping my child.

• Try to maintain functional rituals and routines. Few things give a child a clearer message that life is safe than adaptive routines and rituals (e.g., maintaining the same adaptive routines at meal time, bed time, holidays, birthdays, etc.).

• Keep your child’s developmental level and wellness in mind when deciding how much he or she should have access to ongoing developments in the news.

• Try to turn a sense of passivity into an active plan for healing and helping. Your family may decide to pray for the suffering, make donations, write letters, create art, join community efforts to heal and to help, etc.

• Maintain a healthy lifestyle for the entire family. This would include things like spending time having fun together each week and maintaining good diets and schedules for physical activity and sleep.

• If you child seems to be having a hard time adjusting, or otherwise has changed for the worse, seek out a professional consultation. Doing so may improve your child’s adjustment. To find a psychologist click here.

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