Back in March, I wrote an article sharing some ideas for how to help children cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, we were in the acute phase of this collective trauma, and many (including myself) believed and hoped it would be over in a few weeks or months.
But now it has been more than six months and it’s still going on. This has become a a kind of “chronic trauma”, which requires a different mindset and different set of tools. So, I thought I would revisit this topic and share some of what I’m talking about with clients now that we are this far into a global pandemic.
If you’re interested in the tips from the first article, you can check it out HERE. But the main ideas were: be honest and give age-appropriate information, limit news and social media consumption, manage your own anxiety, focus on what is normal, and find a new rhythm.
I stand by all of those, and some of what I’m going to share in this article is similar but with a longer-term mindset. So here we go!
A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF CHRONIC VERSUS SINGLE-EVENT TRAUMA
In order to help ourselves and our children cope with the pandemic effectively, it’s important to know that we are all now experiencing a repeated, or chronic, trauma rather than a brief traumatic experience. The impacts of chronic trauma are different, and in some ways less predictable, than a single event.
For example, if you are in a car accident, there are certain ways your body and brain respond automatically. The alarm system in your brain gets triggered. All non-essential functions shut down and you go into fight or flight mode, which is fueled by various hormones. Given the right support, most people’s systems calm down within a few days to a few weeks following this kind of event.
Now, imagine you’re in a car accident every single day for 6 months. This is chronic trauma. And what we know is that eventually your body begins to accommodate and adjust to repeated trauma.
Our system gets worn down and exhausted by the alarm bells in our brain being constantly triggered and we just start tuning it out. This is the general idea of what happens in the body when someone is going through chronic trauma. How people handle and make sense of this process can vary widely both during the trauma and once it is over.
We can’t know how any one of us is going to bounce back from the pandemic. The short and long-term effects depend on so many variables.
But there are some things we know can help cushion the blow and build resiliency, and you can start putting them into practice right now.
1. Create safety and predictability.
Safety and security are high on the list of human needs, and this is especially so during a traumatic experience. Do your best to have a sense of normalcy at home. Stick to routines and schedules that work for your family. And leave time for physical and emotional connection with each other.
2. Listen to and hold space for your child’s concerns and struggles.
Some of what I’ve been seeing lately is parents assuming how and why their child or teen is struggling, without actually asking them. If we don’t ask and listen with an open mind, we won’t know because none of us are mind-readers. Giving our children nonjudgmental space to share their thoughts and concerns often opens up completely new conversations. We may find that what we thought they were struggling with is not actually a problem but that they do have other things weighing on their minds.
3. Stay connected to community in whatever ways it is safe and possible to do so.
This includes extended family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, social groups, school, sports, church, etc. Isolation is not good when we’re experiencing trauma, so while this connection may look and feel different, staying connected is vitally important and gives a serious boost to our overall resilience. So, go talk to your grandmother through her nursing home window, play Yahtzee with the cousins over Zoom, and talk to your neighbors across the driveway. Everyone will be better for it.
4. Don’t put off joy.
In the first months of the pandemic, I think we were all in the mindset of “once this is all over, then we can… (insert future happiness here)”. This can be a fine way of coping with brief seasons of difficulty, but it becomes very depressing and contributes to feelings of hopelessness when you’re experiencing chronic trauma. My encouragement to you is to work on accepting what is and find ways to make the current reality good, or at least okay.
One way to do this is to consciously focus on gratitude and model this for your family. Some families I know make sharing what they are grateful for part of regular dinnertime conversation. I encourage many of my clients to keep a gratitude journal and add to it daily. Don’t put off experiencing joy in the here and now! You will find more of it if you start looking. You could start a family challenge of finding, documenting, and sharing small joys with each other. Or just work on mindfully recognizing happy moments.
5. Help someone else.
Giving or providing help to someone who needs brings together a few of the previous tips into one action. Giving to others in our community builds connection, and when we give to others, we often experience a sense of joy and gratitude ourselves. There’s no better way to pull yourself out of feeling hopeless and helpless.
We can’t magically make the pandemic go away, but my hope is that by implementing some or all of these practices, we can support ourselves and our children as we all go through this collective trauma. You are your child’s best model and teacher, and seeing how you move through this difficult time will have a huge impact on your family.
We’re all in this together, and I’m rooting for you!