Talking about trauma with kids; PTSD, neural mapping, EMDR and reframing
/This article was originally posted on March 21, 2011. It is still important to have open conversations with children about traumatic events or other information they may find confusing, troubling or frightening. EMDR therapy can be helpful for adults with PTSD./
We all need comfort and we gain it from sharing our burdens, talking about troubles and letting out worries. Listening is more important than talking - let kids talk to you about trauma - we don't know what they are thinking or are worried about until we let them talk it out. Don't worry too much about "how to talk about it", pause, listen, and accept - "yes, there are worries but we'll stick together and work through it", is a strong message for all of us to hear.
Children and all of us have "hot" emotional memories centered in the amygdala and milder long term factual memories stored more generally throughout the neocortex. Electrical activity of the brain can be recorded and associated with the topic being considered. The amygdala centered emotional memory can be tied to smells, sounds, places or people and can be unexpectedly triggered leaving the person with panic attack type symptoms unique to the individual's memories of the early traumatic event.
Neural connections in the brain can be flexible or can be linked together in behavior patterns that might be described as being a bit like playing with a line of toy dominoes. The designers spend hours placing the dominoes in line, each the perfect distance and angle from the last, carefully balanced on end and poised for any slight shock to send the entire chain tumbling down. Emotional memories may be triggered by something like a car door slamming shut. A toddler memory may be submerged regarding something as trivial as mom and dad fighting over who has to carry in the groceries and the car doors were slammed shut violently. To a toddler the words may not mean as much as the tone and the violent sounds. A description of brain cell connections without the dominoes analogy is available on ScienceDaily: Brain pattern flexibility and behavior, (ScienceDaily)
After the event, immediately, and maybe later that day, the next day, the next week - the toddler may pester with questions of what is wrong and what did I do to cause that fight? The child's world is centered around themselves - natural while young but prone to self blame. The memory can be stored with feelings of "I caused that arguement - I am a bad person - I don't deserve attention or explanation" and so on. If their worries are left unanswered or are denied as real then the hot memory is ignored and is left unprocessed, instead it is pushed down and forgotten at the daily level. A car door slamming with a combination of shouting voices might trigger a panic attack though.
The hot memory can be toned down and moved to long term storage if time is allowed to discuss the event - and more than once. It might pop up in the toddler's chit chat daily, and then weekly, monthly, and maybe even over the years if it was bad enough triggering event. Once the connection is made though, (negative event associated with a negative symptom) and discussed, usually the power of the slamming/shouting sound is reduced and similar events in the future may not trigger a panic attack or it might be a milder reaction.
Children are absorbing knowledge and building their neural pathways - good habits and bad habits are learned by watching the people they love and trust. Spending a few minutes whenever possible to listen to children share their worries allows them to move the memories from the 'hot' button zone of the amygdala, to the mellower long-term storage of the neocortex.
Symptoms of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, can be effectively reframed and reduced using cognitive therapy techniques like EMDR. A problem or trigger event is visualized and then a state of deep relaxation is reached and the memory is discussed or pondered with guidance from the therapist. New insights from the perspective of the adult framing of the situation can be considered and then the relaxation method is repeated using the new perspective. The neural maps of the traumatic events can be reached from a deeply relaxed state of theta waves. EMDR, attempts to help the patient reach the theta state with rapid stimulation of the right side then left side of the brain, either visually with a moving hand or object, or with sound or a vibration buzz in the palm of the hand. Children under seven are already living in this more meditative level of consciousness. In the zone - flow time - playing like a child - we could all use a little relaxed theta time these days and a chance to free a little worry from the hot zone of the amygdala.
The world is changing but denying reality never solves problems it only pushes them down to a submerged hot zone. When we talk about our troubles then we can look for solutions and change. Denying problems, denies a chance for change.
Art therapy can be a useful way to give children and anyone freedom to explore feelings - color to feel not to produce. Playdough and other free form play can help reach a relaxed state where gentle talk about hot topics can be released as they surface. Picking at the problem with needling questions may not be as quick as open ended play time. Adults may find a walk or bike ride their ticket to free flow brain time.
Disclaimer: Opinions are my own and the information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes.
Terrorism, and talking to kids about catastrophic mass violence, guidance sheets from The National Child Tramatic Stress Network [nctsnet.org/trauma-types/terrorism]
by Carol Boulware, MFT, PhD, “EMDR Therapy, EMDR Therapists, EMDR information, PTSD,” [emdr-therapy.com/].
by Carol Boulware, MFT, PhD, “EMDR-Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress,Trauma and Self-Sabotage,” [emdr-therapy.com].
by Carol Boulware, MFT, PhD, "Do I Have Anxiety Needing Therapy?" a discussion about anxiety and PTSD focused on adults [emdr-therapy]
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network [nctsnet.org/]
Trauma and Your Family - a guidance factsheet from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network pdf: [nctsn.org]
by Tanya Anderson, PTSD in Children and Adolescents, Great Cities Institute, GCP-05-04, November, 2005 pdf: [uic.edu]
This website is a non-profit 12 step based program for the Adult Children Of Alcoholic (or Dysfunctional) Families. PTSD and neural mapping aren't discussed but the symptom list includes similar problems: The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (or Dysfunctional Family) , [adultchildren.org]