The Up-side of Trauma

Hi Readers! Here’s something I never wish upon any of us: Suffering a trauma. That being said, I was nonetheless cheered to read this article in The Wall Street Journal on the “growth” that children can experience after a tragedy:

…Research on children traumatized by disaster is revealing that some children have a surprising capacity not only to bounce back, but to grow stronger than before. Once thought possible only in adults, this “post-traumatic growth” is marked by increases in self esteem and compassion, a greater appreciation for relationships and a deeper sense of meaning or spirituality.

Children may say, for example, that they learned as a result of a disaster “how nice and helpful people can be.”

This doesn’t surprise me that much, as it seems pretty clear that humans often appreciate what they have after a brush with loss. But it was nice to be reminded that even as society tries to convince us we must strive to make our children’s lives free of all frustration and sadness, the human condition is built to withstand a whole lot more. And thrive.  — Lenore

25 Responses

  1. I love this site and the free-range ethos, but my God, can you STOP with the Daily Mail links?! The reason the stories are shocking is because the Mail is a “shock, horror, Oh my God, what is our world coming to?! Everything will give you cancer, and while we’re at it, what about those foreigners? Don’t we all hate them?” Tabloid.

    I suppose without hard proof I can’t say that they make all their stories up, but you know, for the most part, they are either exaggerated, or just plain untrue.
    A typical Mail headline goes something like “Lazy, single mother immigrants on benefits will give you cancer!”

    I’m not saying that this couldn’t happen in England, just that it’s kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel if you want to take the Mail’s word that it did. I’d bet my life that there’s MUCH more to it than the Mail’s reported.

  2. whoops, sorry, I put that comment in the wrong place – it was supposed to be on a different story on the site.

  3. “Once thought possible only in adults”?
    That’s opinion disguised as reporting.

    Whooping Cough is known in many cultures as the “enlightenment cough” because for millenia, parents have seen their children emerge from it with a calmer, wiser perspective on their world and the people in them.

  4. The whole “scarred for life” attitude vis a vis traumatic events has never sat particularly well with me. Were the human race truly as fragile as we make children out to be, we’d have been extinct by now. However, whenever I’ve pointed this out, it’s not been well-received. There are, without a doubt, some people who are more fragile than the norm, and (child or adult) I am a big believer in compassionate and proactive psychological/psychiatric care for those individuals. That being said, many of us have experienced mild to severe traumatic events (or upbringings) and have gone on to be healthy, contributing members of society.

  5. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places

  6. It is a Very Difficult Topic, but amidst the paranoia and fear of paedophilia is this idea that the moment your child is violated in any way they are permanently broken and there is no restoration available. I remember in the eighties & nineties, when suddenly everyone was breaking the silence about rape, feeling (in my teens and twenties) like a rapeable object walking around, instead of an agent of my own destiny. The prevalent idea pushed in media and film was that if you were raped you were stuffed for life. Your marriage would break down because you would forever be owned by your rapist. There was no recovery, only ‘survival’ or ‘victimhood’. This objectification of women is now far more persistent in the media in the way children and teenagers are depicted, and yet it is rarely problematised in the same way.

    Except by your own good self of course. Free Range Kids is an excellent lesson in critical reading.

  7. oh and plus: “once thought only possible in adults”

    How freaking offensive is that? And I have to say my speculation would have gone the other way. I would have assumed kids more resilient, more capable of forming new neural pathways and not dwelling on “why me?”…unless they have some adult looming over them going: ‘See, I told you the world was a dangerous place. Let’s just rehash that trauma one more time.’

  8. I like:

    Children may say, for example, that they learned as a result of a disaster “how nice and helpful people can be.”

    You may have heard that here in Christchurch, New Zealand we’ve recently had a pretty devastating magnitude 7.1 earthquake. The thing that struck me more than anything else was how, on the morning of the quake, people were wandering around our street, sharing water for babies, making makeshift repairs on each other’s roofs, and the like.

    And Miss 8 was inviting herself into strangers’ houses to check out the damage.

  9. I have two adopted daughters who, along with many in the adoption community, amaze me with the ways in which they seem wise beyond their years. My one daughter in particular (who came to me at 9 mos from a very loving foster family) is really “deep.” She’s 3.5 so I don’t even say that to many people, because it sounds ridiculous. But she has not only an ability to understand, but a desire to find out what’s behind others’ feelings and actions (whether it’s death, war, marriage, whatever).

    Both of my kids are also really hardy. And it’s very rare for either of them to say “I can’t.” I won’t deny that my eldest has some insecurities that might relate to having been disrupted at 12 mos. But she’s still better at handling the unexpected / undesired than many kids her age who have never had a significant trauma.

  10. This is not trauma per se, but when I was a scout leader we regularly talked homesick girls through the night rather than letting them call home/go home. They were always *so* proud in the morning that they made it overnight. I would always tell them I knew they were strong enough to do it.

  11. My new Grandaughter has a bib that reads “Spit Happens”.

    And it does.

    There is a saying that we should give thanks for adversity, adversity brings us closer to God.

    For the many non religious, “God” is interpreted as “true wisdom”.

    Adversity shows us evil doesn’t only happen to the wrongful or the deserving. That we can endure evil and adversity without becoming evil or bitter. That we can, and we must.

    Adversity shows us our real self. It shows us who our real friends are. It shows us how much good is found in those distained as “evil”, and how ‘evil’ the “good” folk are.

    Adversity is not something I wish on any other, but I do now give thanks, after having lived through it.

  12. This doesn’t surprise me at all. Calling life “trauma” bothers me though. This idea that everything is supposed to be comfortable and easy bothers me. Sorry, sometimes shit is hard and getting through the hard shit makes you stronger for the next hard thing you have to face. Resilience is developed and reinforced when you have to go through something challenging. And guess what? Some stressors are actually beneficial! I dare one person to tell me that there aren’t certain hardships that helped shape them into the person they are today. You can always tell the people who lived sheltered lives, they fall apart as soon as they have to deal with the reality that life is challenging and things are sometimes uncomfortable.

  13. The original trauma is something you can recover from. What is harder is to live with adults treating you like a sad, traumatized child. Kids don’t usually act that way.

  14. Agree, agree, agree.

    Just after my daughter turned nine, she broke her femur in a skateboarding accident. It was a nasty, nasty break and involved several months in a wheelchair and on crutches. I was a single mom at the time, and the experience was extraordinarily difficult for both of us.

    But when it was all over, we agreed that in many ways it had been a positive thing. She was able to learn a great deal about herself — about her determination and resiliency and general toughness. She learned problem solving. (How DO you go to the bathroom if you’re a little kid in a wheelchair?) She learned about real friendship, since many friends were there to help support and care for her. I wasn’t able to work for awhile, so we had lots of time to spend together reading and painting and playing board games.

    In a broader way, I was able to watch her learn things like compassion for people with disabilities, and patience, and appreciation.

    Four years later, she’s got some awesome x-rays and a t-shirt that says “Scars are Tattoos with Better Stories.” She refused treatment for her scars because she said “They’re part of me. They remind me that something really awful happened, but now I’m just fine.”

    This is a little different than the “bad stuff” that most of you are discussing — but I think it’s a good example of how negative things can turn out to impact kids’ lives in a positive way.

  15. I agree that children are treated as if they’ll crack at the slightest strain… and that’ll only encourage children to become like that. So many things are described as ‘damaging’ to children: leaving them to cry, teasing, tests at school etc. None of these are fun, no, but kids are resilient enough to manage and move on!

    I’m uncomfortable with the way that the moment something bad happens, such as a tragedy in a school community, the counsellors are brought in, as if everyone must have a trauma they need to recount. Obviously, no one’s forcing kids to see them, but it all creates the idea that you *must* see a ‘professional’ in order to ‘deal with your issues’ when something stressful or upsetting happens. Interestingly, I remember a quote from the head of a major psychotherapy organisation in the UK, saying that he believed counselling and therapy should only be a last resort in the minority of cases where the immediate network of family and friends is not enough to help a person experiencing problems. Instead, people are being encouraged to use therapy as a first port of call.

    I have had therapeutic treatment myself, by the way, so I don’t knock it or think it’s flakey – it can be invaluable. But it should be saved for when it’s really needed, not set up to invite people in as soon as something bad happens.

  16. Good point. There is a wide range of negative experience that can help a child develop resilient behaviors – or not necessarily ‘trauma’. Telling a child ‘no’ for what they want, or requiring to ask for something before providing it, or delaying giving them what they ask for – are all ways to build early resiliency skills.

  17. Related, kind of. There was a great article last year in the Atlantic about the science of success and how kids personality types handle stress and the underlying genetics.

    The thing that stuck out most to me after reading this post which reminded me of that article was that the kids who were traditionally high maintenance were the ones who shined when faced with greater adversity (disasters).

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/12/the-science-of-success/7761/

  18. “Once thought only possible in adults?” Really? I’ve actually thought the opposite: kids are much more resilient than adults because they HAVEN’T had all the traumatic experiences that adults may have had and thus don’t have that extra “baggage” to make them more sensitive to things life throws at them.

    When I was eight, my beloved great-grandmother died. This was a pretty traumatic experience for me as I lived with her for several years and was very close to her. To me, it was very sudden as no one told me she was sick (cancer). She was the first person very close to me to die and sadly she wasn’t the last. But while I certainly wasn’t pleased she died, I can honestly say the experience helped me deal with future deaths and even allowed me to help my husband with the death of his father.

  19. Sorry…I thought about the first point of my comment and realized that it didn’t really go with the point of this post.

    I guess what I was trying to say is that kids are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for, more so than adults think.

  20. Very interesting, this…my 11 y.o. niece just went through a traumatic event, of a sort — she was visiting her grandparents, who live in a high rise complex, and had to immediately evacuate when the adjoining garage started coming apart (apparently, it caused the building to shake, with structural damage being the result). As a result, she is now afraid to go over bridges of any sort, refuses to get into elevators, and, I’d imagine, will probably be reluctant to venture into any high rise building.

    She is still upset by this, but I also wonder if perhaps her grandparents (and her family) are further feeding upon this trauma. I can understand being weirded out by this, but to keep dwelling on this (fortunately, no one in the building was injured) does more harm than good. Additionally, my niece does have a tendency to become histrionic over things, as does her mother/grandmother. I had suggested she see a child psychologist for this (better to nip this in the bud right away). Thoughts, anyone, or am I being a bit too harsh?

  21. It is a shame that I get so excited when the experts state the obvious. Even chlidren learn from difficulties in life. Life is hard and life is worh living. We grow not when things are easy but when they are hard and even traumatic. When I read about the lives of people even a generation ago and see how “hard” they had it and still accomplished so much I am always amazed. We are becoming a nation of people to weak to face any problem that confronts us. Glad to see that people are waking up to the reality that difficulties are good for us.

  22. This is news? To whom?

    “That which does not kill you only serves to make you stronger”
    -Nietzche

  23. @Lucy It’s also (the article) in the wall street journal.

    Anyway, having worked with traumatized kids, having been a traumatized kid, this is a ‘no duh’ type of article. Yes, kids tend to grow more compassionate, more aware of inequities, and more grateful after trauma. I’ve heard people call it being an ‘old soul’- sort of having a wisdom and compassion that cannot be justified by the child’s chronological age.

    The key is, when there is trauma, for the world to respond compassionately and quickly. Pathologizing it immediately (sending a kid to therapy days after a car accident because they’re wetting the bed) or ignore it completely and you risk serious repercussions.

  24. One of the most traumatic things that happen to kids all the time is their parents getting a divorce.

    You don’t see anyone getting their panties in a knot trying to prevent THAT from happening.

  25. This story doesn’t surprise me. Studies of eminent and highly successful individuals have shown that an unusually high proportion of them (compared to the ‘average’ population) have suffered some type of childhood trauma (such as the death of parent). It seems that for some people (children included) trauma has a positive galvanising effect.

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