Teaching your kids to be resilient can help them cope with trauma and stress.
By Dr Vihan Sanyal
Did you know that 80 per cent of a child’s brain develops by age of three years? Early childhood trauma till the ages six years can have a lasting effect on a child’s ability to learn and to grow.
A child’s emotional development can be adversely affected after exposure to traumatic events. They may face challenges in regulating their moods and emotions in life, while natural reactions to common emotions like pain and pleasure can be desensitised by such experiences.
Exposure to constant stress in an infant can restrict the growth of brain cells. This can lead to behavioural problems and also contribute to physical and mental illness later in life.
What can cause trauma?
The following experiences have the potential to cause trauma:
Dysfunctional family life
Witnessing domestic violence
Being constantly yelled at or subjected to verbal abuse
Feeling unloved and being neglected by parents
Bullied by siblings or peers
How do children respond to trauma?
FLIGHT, FIGHT OR FREEZE: This response is activated during traumatic events. Children may look at the best way to escape or avoid a traumatic situation. They might resist it in order to overcome the situation or may freeze from fright and become numb.
STRESS: Children who are subjected to emotional stress show signs of irritation, anger, anxiety, nervousness and even depression.
DELAYED DISTRESS: Some children internalise the trauma and may not show any physical or emotional symptoms right after the event. It usually manifests over a period of days, weeks, even years after the occurrence of the event.
RECOVERY: How fast children recover from traumatic events depends on their resilience to traumatic experiences. Some may recover from an event almost immediately, while others may take years to get over it.
What is resilience?
Resilience is the ability to get back on your feet after being knocked down. It’s the ability to remain emotionally strong and adapt to loss, natural disasters, life-threatening events, physical illness, financial problems and relationship issues. Learning the skills to cope with and manage traumatic events is critical to develop the quality of resilience.
Resilience and the brain
The amygdala is a part of the brain which governs memory, emotions and the decisions we make. It has two main components called the basal stria terminalis and the central nucleus. Any traumatic event activates the central nucleus, which often results in emotional disturbances and phobias. The stria terminalis, on the other hand, works as a calming agent. If children are taught to take positive actions quickly and respond to the threat, this will activate this area of the amygdale, resulting in countering the negative effects of the central nucleus.
Resilient children vs children with low resilience
A resilient child recovers from trauma quickly. These children tend to focus on solutions and don’t consider themselves as victims of their circumstances. They tend to also help people in times of crisis, since their threshold of coping is stronger than those who are less resilient.
A child with low resilience is likely to surrender himself to the events and feel overwhelmed and helpless. They may even feel physically paralysed from intense fear caused by the traumatic event. It might take them a lifetime to recover from a single traumatic event.
Children with low resilience need to have a strong, supportive relationship with a parent or caregiver. This will help them become more resilient when they are faced with adversity.
How can parents help?
Parents need to set positive examples themselves. Children naturally model the behaviour of their parents. If a child sees the parents respond calmly and efficiently to traumatic events, then they are likely to behave in a similar way themselves.
Support your children by listening to them. Encourage your children to talk about the issues which may be troubling them. Let them know that it is perfectly normal to feel scared, angry or hurt and they should express their emotions.
Help them to come up with possible solutions to problems. Don’t be tempted to offer them solutions quickly. Instead, ask them, “What do you think we should do now?”
Maintain balance, reinforce faith and trust. Keep an optimistic outlook.
Let your children know that you have faith in their abilities and that they are not alone. Together, you will overcome the traumatic events.
Can an adult learn to become resilient?
The good news is that it’s never too late to build resilience. A person can learn and implement skills that would help them to become more resilient to life’s challenges. However, as our brain and biological system is more flexible and adaptable in the early years, it would be much easier to strengthen resilience then.
(The writer is a psychotherapist.)