Giving Children and Parents the Tools to Cope with Trauma
by Parker Barry
In 2013, just a week before his high school graduation, Ben was shot while walking down the street with his friends in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. And although his body healed, his mind was reliving this traumatic event. He wasn’t able to emotionally heal on his own.
“I never knew this was really going to happen to me. I mean, I was just crying a lot. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know who to trust.” Ben didn’t understand that he needed to address his mental health before he could continue on with his life.
As a part of the Promoting Resilience grant initiative, Bright Promises Foundation helps to provide children and families with the tools and resources they need to cope with the emotional instability that follows trauma. By working with professionals to provide trauma-informed care that allows for children and their parents to heal, Bright Promises is helping families and communities progress past trauma so that they can flourish and thrive.
Trauma exposure in children and adolescents in an urban setting is as high as 80% while posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) is almost 30%. The long term effects of childhood trauma are extensive. People who have experienced childhood trauma are more likely to struggle with poor mental health, more likely to involve themselves with smoking and dangerous levels of alcohol, and have a suicide rate that is four to five times higher than their peers.(Fact Sheet: Childhood Trauma Adverse Childhood Experiences. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2017, from http://mha.ohio.gov/Portals/0/assets/Initiatives/TIC/ChildrenYouthAdolescents)
Traumatic life events vary from family and community violence to childhood poverty. Often many parents and even child-serving professionals are not aware of the effects that trauma can have on a child’s mental stability. This is where organizations like Erikson Institute, University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Research Triangle who have participated in the Promoting Resilience initiative can help. The Promoting Resilience program partners offer trauma survivors and their families the opportunity to restore their emotional wellbeing. And that’s why Bright Promises seeks to support these organizations.
“If someone comes into the hospital with a violent injury, they get their physical injuries treated and they are sent home,” says Dr. Brad Stolbach, a doctor at the University of Chicago of Medicine. “No one talks to them about the emotional, psychological, [or] spiritual impact of what they’ve gone through…”
Emotional intelligence, feeling connected with oneself, one’s family and one’s community isn’t an ascribed trait — it’s achieved. Experiencing trauma can change the way a person perceives their world. It can affect their daily behaviors and relationships — without them or people around them being aware of its cause or effect.
Children who have experienced trauma carry a toxic level of stress with them through the different stages of their lives. They have trouble trusting adults and peers and often turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms that can dangerously affect their livelihood. Without the proper education in emotional intelligence these traumatic events can end up manifesting themselves in inappropriate and detrimental behavior. (Stevens, J. E. (2015, June 02). The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study — the largest, most important public health study you never heard of — began in an obesity clinic. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from https://acestoohigh.com/2012/10/03/the-adverse-childhood-experiences-study-the-largest-most-important-public-health-study-you-never-heard-of-began-in-an-obesity-clinic/)
By providing focused funding and holistic programs to support organizations participating in the Promoting Resilience initiative, Bright Promises helps children and parents gain access to trained professionals that can guide them through the process of healing after trauma.
It’s all connected
Trauma doesn’t just affect the person who experiences it, it affects everyone around them.
“I completely understand the screaming mother you see in the hospital,” Denice, the mother of a 15-year-old gunshot victim, said. “Your kid, your baby is laying in that bed, for whatever reason he is there, your baby is in that bed, good, bad, indifferent gangbanger, whoever he is, your child is in that bed. And at that point all you want to do is get them back to the point where you can hug them and take them home.”
Because of their intense empathy for their children, parents experience their children’s trauma as their own. It’s not realistic for parents to play the role of the caregiver when they are struggling with mental obstacles similar to those their child is experiencing.
“When something like this happens in a family it doesn’t just traumatize the person who is injured, it traumatizes the whole family. So the family is not in a position to serve that function for a child of helping them to make sense of it, because they’re going through the same thing themselves.” Dr. Stolbach said.
Parents of traumatized children are also experiencing the mind-altering repercussions of trauma. And they are often left to care for their children by themselves, without the knowledge or support they need to cope with what happened to their child and to them, and without the ability to truly provide the care required to promote resilience and support healing.
“Because you really [are] free floating by yourself, [it] is what so many people do and the fact that this program [Promoting Resilience] is here to throw you a lifeline,” Denice said, “you don’t even realize you need the lifeline until you grab onto it and take that first deep breathe and you know, okay fine there is somebody here who is going to help me.”
2016 was the fourth year of the Promoting Resilience initiative, and 17 different child-serving organizations participated, including the Office of the Public Guardian, the Department of Human Services: Early Intervention, and numerous after school and youth development programs.
Ongoing evaluation of this initiatives has demonstrated a lasting impact. Participants in this initiative reported that Bright Promises’ funding and support has allowed them to “address a significant gap” in their ability to serve at-risk children and families (Erikson Institute), and has “led to better relationships and increased collaboration” (University of Chicago) which “ultimately improves the quality of care [we] are able to provide to young clients and their families” (Children’s Research Triangle).
For more information about this initiative and to learn about other ways that Bright Promises Foundation is creating opportunities for at-risk youth, visit www.brightpromises.org/programs.
Please note: Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Special thanks Parker Barry, our guest blog author, for her throughtful research and reporting.