Updated: Oct 27
Welcome to the September 2022 edition of the Childhood Trauma Newsletter! This month we will cover kinship care, children's grief, school anxiety, mitigating factors of trauma, and pet loss. Wow, that's a lot!
Kinship care awareness
September is National Kinship Care Month. Kinship care families form when a child is unable to live with their parents due to safety issues like abuse and neglect. Still, they include informal relationships when mom or dad cannot care for their children due to mental health issues and substance use. By definition, kinship care is any relative or previous connection, like a family friend, who takes care of a child when they cannot live with their biological parents. Sometimes child welfare is involved, but often they are not.
In the United States, there are approximately 2.6 million grandfamilies (grandparents raising grandchildren). The relationships are often referred to as "invisible foster care" because kinship families do not receive the same mental health support and financial resources as licensed foster families in the United States. You can learn more by visiting grandfamilies.org.
Children are grieving
All children who experience developmental trauma from family separation, foster care, and adoption are grieving. Even if there wasn't physical death in their family, they still grieve heavily for the loss of meaningful relationships and what "could've been." They are grieving for a lack of safety. A lack of understanding. Today is a great day to check in with these children and acknowledge their grief. It's also helpful to recognize YOUR grief today. Caregivers take on vicarious trauma and suffering, but they may have lost a relationship with their biological children due to the opioid crisis, incarceration, or mental illness. Take a five-minute break from whatever you are doing and send loving thoughts to someone you miss, light a candle in their honor, or write a letter to them to save in a special place.
September Trauma Tips
Did you know that the fall season often triggers trauma, grief, and loss? The smells, the sounds, the sights, and the feelings that come up in our bodies can remind us of past events, activating traumatic memories. Shifting from long days full of sunlight to shorter days with reduced sunlight can also trigger grief. Even the leaves falling from the trees can be a symbol of loss and death. When we are aware of this, we can look at children's behavior with more compassion, which will help us pause in moments of stress to respond with curiosity instead of judgment.
As children prepare to return to school, anxiety is likely high in those with a history of trauma. Transitions are always, always a vulnerable time for children with trauma. Back-to-school is expected to be a challenge, and for a good reason! The school shootings at the end of spring have many feeling unsafe and worried. But also, being separated from their safe adults while at school can also be challenging. If you notice disruptive behavior in your child, consider that it could be the stress of the new school year beginning and the separation they will have from you (another form of loss). Transitions can be especially hard for children with trauma, to learn why check out my previous blog on this topic. In addition this, children who are frequently in trouble don't have time to feel sad and fearful. Getting into trouble at home and in school can be a powerful distraction for painful emotions they are experiencing underneath.
Three steps for school anxiety:
Check in and ask the children you love if they have any worries about the new school year. If they say "no," mention that you understand how hard it can be to transition from summer schedules to school schedules. Share what it feels like for you, and admit your real feelings about it. The fall means children with trauma might have less access to their caregivers as everyone becomes focused on achieving instead of relaxing. Acknowledge that they might miss time with their parents, grandparents, foster parents, and those they feel safe with. Therapists and teachers can also initiate this conversation with students struggling with behavior issues this school year. Having someone understand and validate what they feel will reduce anxiety and make it easier for children to cope. We all want and deserve to be heard and seen.
It will also help to make sleep a #1 priority for you and your kiddos because lack of sleep can cause mood swings, anxiety, and symptoms of depression. Healthy sleep habits might be the most underrated intervention for children with trauma. Our brains need sleep to process and heal from the day's stressors. School-age children need about 9-11 hours of sleep a night, and some teenagers need closer to 12 hours of sleep a night! Take the phones out of their room and make sure they aren't using them in the middle of the night and let them sleep in when possible. I used to wake up at 12 noon as a teenager on the weekends. My brain needed that sleep.
Prioritize play. Play is another way children heal from trauma. Provide opportunities for children to get plenty of free play time. Imaginative play is where the trauma themes will often appear. Sit and observe them play for 10 minutes a day without directing or correcting the child (unless there is a safety issue.) Provide figurines of family members and a doll house for children who have experienced separation from biological parents. If possible, spend time in nature. Dig in the dirt, plant flowers, throw rocks in a creek. Outside play can be a time of connection that feels less threatening to children. With older kiddos engage in side-by-side activities like walking, or riding bikes to facilitate deeper attachment and connection. Side-by-side activities are also a great time to talk about stressors because it feels less confrontational then looking each other straight in the face.
Keep an eye out for the following symptoms of trauma this fall:
Regressive behavior like separation anxiety, bed wetting
Bodily complaints like headaches/stomach aches
A need to control decisions and events
Refusing to visit places that remind them of their trauma
Nightmares/night terrors/intrusive daytime thoughts
Inability to pay attention to instructions/distractability
Significant changes in appetite or sleep habits
Big expressions of anger or fear
Hyperarousal - high activity, constantly on alert and detecting threats
Hypoarousal- withdrawn, checked out, losing track of time
Mitigating factors following trauma:
Compassionate connection with caregivers, teachers, and friends
Adequate time for play and recess at school
Sports and extracurricular activities
Peer support groups
Activities like yoga, dance, acting, and art
Two or more supportive adults outside the immediate family unit
Physical closeness with a regulated adult (*Our physical proximity matters when it comes to soothing a child's dysregulated nervous system. We may need to spend more time making eye contact (putting down our phones) and provide close contact if the child is safe and comfortable.)
This month will be a challenge for all of us as we return to school. Expect the first month to be a mixture of intensified emotions. As a parent, I'm no different than you. I text my husband a three-page rant of frustration when I can't calm my child. In those moments, I know that none of us have this parenting thing all figured out. As hard as I try, I often fail to implement the exact knowledge I share with you. I'm not here to give you all the answers because I certainly don't have them, but we can keep trying. Keep trying until we find what works, and remember that your relationship with the child is the most critical resource for healing childhood trauma!
No matter how much support we give children, it won't be successful unless the adults in their life are emotionally regulated. So if you find yourself with a break from caregiving once summer ends, take time for yourself! Go to therapy, try acupuncture, make art, write that story, buy a beautiful journal and fill it with your ugly thoughts. Get the pressure released from your body in some way.
It is my greatest wish that we have a peaceful and productive school year, and I pray that our country can find a solution to the disturbing amount of trauma and vicarious trauma in our communities.
Resource of the Month:
In August, a Facebook post of mine regarding infant mental health was on FIRE and continues to spread daily. It turns out you have a lot of mutual interest in healing and preventing early childhood trauma, beginning in utero. Infant mental health is also a focused passion of mine. While doing research, I learned about the work of Janet A. Courtney, Ph.D. She developed First Play Therapy, a treatment for infant trauma. I am fascinated by her work! Please take a moment to check her out. (No affiliation, just sharing resources I find helpful.)
New Podcast Suggestion:
The Mandy Mae Johnson Podcast
Listen in as Mandy and I share about the trauma of divorce from a first-hand perspective. My parents divorced when I was two, and we lived 8 hours apart. I share what it was like for me as a child, how it impacted my mental health as an adult, and what helps prevent additional trauma so children can move forward after divorce and family separation. Mandy is a blended family and is raising four children! I tip my hat to her.
Trauma Champion of the Month: Mathew Portell
A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by this month's Trauma Champion, Mathew Portell, Director of Communities at PACES Connection and founder of the widely respected Trauma-Informed Educators Network on Facebook. It turned out to be a conversation filled with laughter for a heavy topic like childhood trauma! Not that we take it lightly, but that we have to give space to ourselves and others to laugh amid the pain. We got really open about our struggles as parents, how trauma shows up in us, and what we can do to help children recover from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). If you want to learn more about us as parents and trauma advocates, watch/listen to our podcast episode HERE on youtube or HERE on apple podcasts.
Mathew is currently in Australia presenting on trauma-informed education! He is spreading this message globally and creating change for millions of children impacted by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Friday, 9/9 from 1-4 PM ET: National Town Hall on Kinship Care. Guest speakers from around the nation will discuss the latest issues in kinship care and share updates from congress. This is a free, virtual event and ALL are welcome to attend. Register HERE.
Saturday, 9/10 from 10 - 12 pm ET, I will be signing copies of my therapeutic children's book for kinship families, A Grandfamily for Sullivan. The event will take place on the front lawn at the Helen Kate Furness Library in Wallingford, PA. I hope to see my friends and family there. There will be freebies and light refreshments available.
From September 1st to the 10th, 20% of proceeds from A Grandfamily for Sullivan will be donated to Grands Stepping Up, a local non-profit I volunteer for that supports grandparents raising grandchildren. Children LOVE meeting book authors, which can motivate them to read as the school year begins. I hope to see you there!
Thursday, 9/22 I will be the keynote speaker at the Grandparents as Parents (GAP) Conference in Lexington, KY. If you know any social workers or kinship families in Kentucky, please share this link with them to attend. It's only $10 for grandparents to attend, and a FREE copy of my book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan, is included.
At ConnectOurKids.org, we are finishing up the production of the phase one videos for the Connections Matter Academy - an animated series of videos that will teach adolescents through young adults how to cope with childhood trauma and loss and heal from adversity. This resource will be free for use by social workers, school counselors, and therapists working with children in the foster care system. Keep an eye out for an announcement when the videos are ready!
I am collaborating with PACESconnection.org to develop a virtual grief and trauma conference that will take place later this year. Stay tuned for full details and guest speakers on my social media!
On a personal note…
This weekend, we had to say goodbye to our beloved dog and family member, Neko. She was 16 and I honestly can't remember my life before she existed. Labor Day weekend is also the anniversary of my mother's sudden death. Neko came into my life following my mother's death and provided me with the healing and hope I needed during a time of despair. She was my unofficial therapy dog and my absolute best friend. She even walked down the aisle at our wedding back in 2014. She will be missed enormously, and we will love her forever. Pet loss can be traumatic for children. However, if you are caring for an elderly pet, you can do things to help you prepare for this loss. Here is a list of resources that might help you and your family cope with a pet's death.
If you are interested in trauma-informed mental health training or consulting for your group or organization, please learn more about my services at bethtyson.com/services.
I want you to know you are not alone in your journey to cope with childhood trauma. You got this! For additional support, please visit my social media accounts or join my private Facebook group, Emotiminds.
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With grief, hope, and love,