Trauma is a weird thing. We live our lives day-to-day, encountering all sorts of events, positive, negative, and neutral. Of the negative, some are traumatic, and even further, some are “big T” traumas, i.e., those truly near-death experiences, and others are “little t” traumas, like a breakup after a few weeks.
They all define us and shape us into the people we become, whether we like it or not. Then we have collective trauma such as the COVID pandemic or 9/11/01. These shape the world around us but also our individual lives.
Like nearly everyone, I remember exactly where I was and all I felt on 9/11/01 and the days following as though it was yesterday. At that moment, I felt lost and scared. Then there was something resembling adrenaline pushing me to do things – watch the news incessantly, get things that could help others, and be a source of support for friends.
These patterns have followed during traumatic events and seem to be ingrained in my personality all these years later. I don’t know if it was always there, but it has been there since that day. There is a clear demarcation line in my mind of before and after.
That is what trauma does to us, physically and mentally. It creates an instant line in the sand – before and after. How we approach the world around us suddenly changes, whether we realize it or not.
There are the split-second hesitations, the questions of “should I do that?” “Will I be safe?” “What is the risk I am taking?” Following any trauma, there are feelings of unease. Some are fleeting, whereas others seem to stay around longer than we’d like.
So how do we deal with this? How do we send our children into a world that seems so scary or overwhelming? As the children of the 9/11 era grow into adults and have children of their own, it is important to recognize how all the events since that time shaped our lives and how we can create resilient kids despite all we have seen.
I look back to my parents and their actions for guidance on how we keep going. If they could send us to school 24 hours after our country was under attack, in a time where cell phones were few and far between and Internet was still dial-up, they must have some grit we could pull from, right?
This is what I have gathered from watching my parents, their strengths and flaws, and my professional experience.
1. Come up with an “in case of an emergency action plan.”
If something is going on, be it terrorism, an issue at school, or a sudden illness with a family member, an action plan can help. This should include who can or should your child call, where they go if your home isn’t accessible or you aren’t available, where are the “must-haves,” how you (or them) get them, and any other need-to-know phone numbers. Just having a basic plan is helpful. Verbally reviewing this with your child and having a printout in a folder in their bag or cell phone are great ways to keep it handy!
2. Check in with your child regularly, especially in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
Ask how they feel, what they know, and what they are unsure about. They may know more than you think, but they also may have some false information that is even scarier than the actual events. Hear them out, and share the factual information, but also share your own emotions. You are human, too!
3. Come up with ways to take action.
Whether volunteering, donating goods, donating blood, or raising funds. Find something that feels good for you and your family. It should be a part of your lives on a semi-regular basis. It provides a sense of purpose and belonging in the world, a way to feel involved even when things sometimes feel so much bigger than you.
4. Identify the risks worth taking.
Every day, we take risks. Some are big, like sky diving; others are small, like driving to work. There is an inherent risk in our daily lives. Identify the risks you regularly take, what ones are outside your comfort zone but necessary, and what your coping skills are to manage all the risks we face, from illness to injury, financial loss and gain, and so on. Once you identify your risks, aversions, and coping skills, be mindful of sharing them with your children and your loved ones. If you feel they need work, seek out a professional. We all sometimes need to strengthen or remind ourselves of these skills.
5. Practice regular gratitude.
As we appreciate the positives, it can feel just a tiny bit easier when needing to weather the storm.