On April 15, 2013, forty-five year-old Todd Losee ran his third Boston Marathon. At home in West Michigan, his wife and two kids excitedly awaited word about how he had performed.
But their world shifted when they learned their husband and father had been swept into the epicenter of a terrorist attack. They were relieved and grateful when they reached one another by text and learned that Todd had completed the race and was three-quarters of a mile away in his hotel room when the bombs detonated.
Trauma and Today’s World
According to the Sidran Institute, an estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives, and up to 20 percent of these people go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Like thousands of people who experience terrorism, natural disaster, abuse, war, medical illness or procedures, or other devastating or life-threatening events, the Losee family experienced the shock of trauma. But what do we mean when we use the word trauma?
The mental health community defines trauma in terms of the “three E’s”:
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or setof circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
A more simplified definition used by traumatologists at Freedom’s Calling and Intensive Trauma Therapy trauma treatment clinics is that trauma occurs when an event overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope.
What’s a Parent to Do?
The uncertainties of today’s world present parents with new challenges. Events like the Newtown tragedy and the Boston Marathon bombing remind us that trauma and tragedy are part of our world. And when events like these occur, the media replays distressing video footage over and over again. Our kids may hear disturbing details at school and in the homes of friends and relatives.
So how can parents help their children process trauma and even prepare for it in advance? Psychologist and child traumatologist Dr. Beth Robinson offers helpful advice:
1. Assure your children that they are safe. Kids are naturally ego-centric, and can think that they are connected to another person’s tragedy. Let them know that steps are being taken to protect them from these kinds of actions. Let them know that this kind of thing has not taken place for years (or perhaps ever) and will not likely take place again for a very long time.
2. Avoid speaking of the massive evils in our world, and instead, frame what happened in concrete concepts of right and wrong. Sometimes people do things that are wrong and hurt others because they do not understand the difference between right and wrong. And sometimes people get too angry and hurt people they believe have hurt them.
3. Answer the question Why? honestly. Don’t be afraid to tell your kids that you don’t exactly know why the bomber or the shooter acted the way they did because you don’t have all the facts. Sometimes people get angry. Sometimes they have mental illnesses. And sometimes they don’t know the reason between right and wrong.
3. Love on your kids. Physical touch and holding children close releases calming neurotransmitters in the brain that communicate feelings of security. Cuddle up with a book or snuggle down with a video. Spend extra one-on-one time, and be ask your kids if they’re feeling afraid or have questions.
4. Build resilience as part of life. Teach your kids competence, character, confidence, how to connect with others so they can cope with challenges when they occur.
Triumph in the Trauma
Unfortunately tragedies are an inevitable part of life. But even devastating events like the Boston Marathon bombing can be an opportunity to help children understand that their world does not have to fall apart when they experience trauma. Trauma also gives us the opportunity to build resilience. When these events occur, we can point our children to brave community heroes who run toward the epicenter of crisis to rescue, comfort, and rebuild.
As parents, it’s critical to point out the goodness of humanity when we are faced with grave evil. If we fail to do this, our silence communicates that we are victims who are forced to watch our world crumble when tragedy hits home. Resilience is built as we face adversity, and we cannot miss the opportunity to use local, national, and world tragedies as illustrations for our children.
As parents, our job is to teach our children not only how to face trauma, but also to become the heroes and builders of the next generation.
About Brooks Gibbs: With more than a decade of speaking to youth, Brooks Gibbs has earned a reputation as a leading authority on youth issues surrounding bullying. Featured in Teen People Magazine, The Washington Post, and interviewed on CBS, his inspiring personal stories and helpful strategies have reached more than a million teens and counting.
For books on how on how to deal with PTSD in family relationships and talking to children about tragic events consider Deployed: A Survival Guide for Families at War and Love, Hugs, and Hope: When Scary Things Happen.