Are Children Really Resilient?

Published on April 23, 2015 by

Kids posing over white“They’ll be fine.  They’re young. They’ll get over it. They won’t even remember. They just need to toughen up.” I have heard people refer to children like this many times when working with clients, but it is not completely accurate. Many people assume that children are highly resilient and adaptable. Are children really resilient? Of course they are. People in general are resilient. We can endure and overcome heart-wrenching challenges, especially with the support of others. However, just because a person is young does not mean that they can escape unscathed from any situation. On the contrary, children may become more traumatized than an adult might during a given experience.

Because children are impressionable, trauma can have a long-lasting impact on them. Their brains are still developing, so trauma can have a greater effect on their malleable brains than an adult’s brain that is no longer developing. Makes a lot of sense, right? Neuroscientists have literally found how trauma can leave its imprint on their developing brains through brain imaging. There are other things to consider as well.  Children have not had the life experiences to teach them that traumatic experiences are an exception and not the rule.  They have not developed as many coping skills as an adult might have. They do not have as much control over their life situation and support systems as an independent adult does. Maybe they were traumatized by someone who was supposed to be a support to them.  The idea that because they are children they will be fine is a sad myth for these reasons and others.

So why does the myth that children will be fine, forget, or easily get over the traumatic event exist?  Perhaps people believe that children will be fine because children do not have long conversations and express themselves verbally the same way adults do.  Hence, adults may not hear about it, or if they do it could be through a couple fleeting comments.  Children may act out (or even “act in”) instead of speaking out.  “Acting in” in can include internalizing situations, feeling guilty or blaming themselves, become depressed or self-harming themselves.  Perhaps the myth exists because children can continue playing and laughing despite their significant emotional challenges.  Just like adults, smiling doesn’t mean they aren’t traumatized by something.  Perhaps adults think that they are too young to understand or to be aware of what is going on.  Children are often more aware than we think, so it is often wise to be aware of what we say and do around them.

Perhaps the myth exists because we as adults don’t think a certain event should be traumatizing.  First, we need to understand what trauma is.  Trauma is exposure to a threat of harm and can be something obvious like being sexually abused or witnessing a death or being in a tornado.  While children may or may not not become traumatized in the sense of developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, children can also experience some stress symptoms over “smaller” situations.  Examples of events include witnessing a car on fire while driving down the freeway, seeing a scary movie or advertisement, or witnessing domestic violence three years ago even though the family is happy and healthy now.  Children can exhibit signs of stress during or after divorce, even though we may think they weren’t involved in or aware of the details of it.  We might tell them to toughen up because it’s just “teasing,” but being bullied can be traumatic. Going to the doctor’s office can be traumatizing (I think we all agree on that one).  Regardless of the reasons we sometimes assume differently, children can become traumatized and there are signs of post-traumatic stress to look for.

Children can respond in a variety of ways to trauma.  Sometimes they become obviously distressed when they have reminders of the trauma.  They may become avoidant or withdraw from certain people or situations.  Children may make comments to you about something that happened, or you may recognize signs of trauma in their play or artwork. They may play something recurrently. Some children have increased nightmares. Maybe you know they often think about the bad memories.  Other children become oppositional, defiant or have temper tantrums when they are traumatized. You may notice they are more irritable.  Others have symptoms similar to ADHD and act impulsively or have difficulty concentrating.  Some children exhibit regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting again.  Children may startle easily.  If you think that your child may have symptoms of traumatic stress, a mental health therapist that specializes in working with children may be helpful.  A therapist can assess what they are experiencing, help teach skills to deal with their anxiety, and help them process and overcome the trauma.

Thankfully, that same developing brain means that they have a tremendous capacity to grow and heal.  Through big and small stressors, empathize with your child and spend time with your child talking or playing.  Just like an adult, children want to feel understood and validated. Establishing safe and loving routines is invaluable. They need that stability.  There is hope.  Remember that caregivers are the most important part in a child’s recovery.

Tanya Lindquist, CSW – Psychological Assessment & Treatment Center

Children Need Help Dealing With Divorce

Published on March 14, 2014 by

            Eleven-year old Laura came to see me for problems related to aggressive and defiant behavior.  Her mother, tapped out of ideas for helping her daughter, believed Laura’s struggles to stem from her parents’ recent divorce.  She worried about Laura’s declining grades, sudden increase in yelling and hitting, refusal to do as she was told, and tendency to pull away from friends.  She said she had found Laura crying herself to sleep at night on several occasions.

            Laura wasn’t terribly excited about going to counseling but, once in my office, was willing to draw a picture for me.  Responding to my request to draw a picture of what her Teen daughter agonizes while parents fightparents’ divorce was like for her, Laura drew a picture of a person’s head, with a hypodermic needle poised for injection and a dagger next to it.

            Beside the picture she wrote the words: “People are usually happy about a marriage and smile and listen to their spouses.  Then they don’t get along.  An imaginary needle injects hate into their minds. A dagger cuts them apart.  They separate.”

            The parents of eight-year old Austin had been divorced for nearly 18 months when he came to see me.  In the interim both parents had remarried but the relationship between the four spouses was tense, at best.  Austin was complaining of persistent stomachaches and nightmares, as well as exhibiting symptoms of separation anxiety.

            In response to my request for a picture of divorce, Austin chose a war scene.  He placed his mother in a fighter jet, heading directly towards his step-mother, and facing him was the step-father, who was commandeering a tank.  Bombs, missiles, and a hail of bullets dotted the page, and the commotion was punctuated by explosions.  Poignantly, Austin drew himself parachuting directly in to the middle of the conflict.

            The innocent victims of divorce, children like Laura and Austin often harbor cynical, angry views and feel helpless in the face of their parents’ separation.  Such children are distressed by the profound sense of loss and confusion they feel.  Some blame themselves (in spite of parental reassurance) and feel they could and should have done more to prevent the outcome. In an effort to assuage their guilt, they may cling to a fantasy of parental reconciliation and believe that they can somehow bring it about.

            While the mood and behavior of some children will actually improve as a result of divorce, most kids struggle to some degree.  This is not to say that all children of divorce need professional help; indeed, the vast majority will, with support from parents, relatives, and friends, find the necessary strength to deal with the pain.  They will effectively navigate through the grief, loyalty conflicts, and changes due to divorce because their parents support one another and work to keep their children from getting “caught in the middle.”

            Some children, however, will have a harder time making sense of their parents’ separation.  For these kids the pain will not subside after a reasonable period of mourning.  They may become sad and withdrawn, losing the exuberance and zest for life they previously had.  Or they may lash out in anger and frustration, becoming easily irritated and blowing things out of proportion.

            A child’s ability to adjust to divorce depends on a number of factors, including his/her relationship with both parents before the divorce, the degree of economic and social (particularly if the child has to move) upheaval that occurs, the child’s personality and resilience in dealing with stress, and resources (e.g., parents, trusted adults, friends, etc.) available to the child for support and guidance.

            Perhaps the most critical factor of all, however, is how well parents communicate and cooperate with one another after the divorce.  While the divorce means two individuals have not found ways to come together as spouses, they must be able to set aside personal agendas and come together as parents.  To act in the best interests of the children means parents will avoid using the children in power struggles.  Working together means that mom and dad will learn to deposit negative feelings for each other with a close friend or therapist instead of confiding them with a child.

            Seeing one’s parents separate can shatter a child’s world; having mom and dad continue to bicker in front of the child, criticize each other in a “backstabbing” fashion, or withhold support from each other only prolongs the child’s agony.  I find that the oldest child often bears the brunt of parental stress, and is typically a barometer of how well the parents are working together. 

            As divorce becomes more common, so too will the fallout on the children.  While people do not intend to divorce when they get married, research shows that divorce is preferable to continued conflict in the home.  By setting aside difference, subverting bitter feelings and retaliatory impulses, and generally learning to get along, parents lessen their children’s struggles.  Such efforts reflect love and genuine concern, and prove that parents divorce each other…not their children.

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Weathering the Storm of Childhood Depression

Published on March 21, 2012 by

Alone  Most Children are cheerful, energetic souls who navigate life’s seas with only occasional difficulty.  True, they have their stormy times, but they work through the ups and downs of life without taking on too much water.

            Those who experience childhood depression are not so fortunate.  Their storms are accompanied by a prolonged rainy season of frustration and despair, often punctuated by sharp and dramatic bursts of lightning and thunder.  Such children frequently lash out at others or find their energy (and for some, their will to live) depleted.

Until the early 80’s, little attention was paid to depression in children.  Indeed, it was commonly believed that children lacked the psychological wherewithal to experience depressive disorders.  Yet recent research suggests that anywhere between five and ten percent of children under the age of 13 suffer from depression.  Moreover, while the rates for boys and girls are essentially identical up to age 14, thereafter the rates increase dramatically for girls.

A family history of depression increases a child’s likelihood of experiencing a depressive episode two to three times, and one recent study suggests that children with a parent who suffered from childhood depression are fourteen times more likely to suffer from the illness themselves before the age of thirteen!

The combination of two factors: that depression is often triggered by a stressful event, and that people who have a genetic predisposition for depression often struggle to cope with stress – puts children prone to such circumstances at high risk for developing depressive symptoms.

Their ability to ward off a dysphoric condition may depend largely on secondary factors that serve as buffers from stress.  Factors such as the child’s personality, the quality of family life, the support network available to the child, and his/her ability to apply healthy coping skills can, to some degree, serve as insulation against depression.  In some cases, however the child’s biological makeup is such that the development of depression may be unavoidable even with such buffers.

In spite of the increased attention given to childhood depression within professional circles, it remains largely undiagnosed (or misdiagnosed) within the community.  One reason this occurs is because childhood depression does not always mimic the depressive symptoms commonly seen in adults.

For instance, while children may experience some of the classic signs of depression, they are equally liable to ‘speak a language all their own.’ This language consists of both internalizing and externalizing behaviors.

The former include irritability, somatic complaints (most commonly, headaches and stomachaches), complaints of boredom, withdrawal, and low self-esteem.

Children who externalize their distress are often said to be ‘acting out,” exhibiting excessive anger or aggression, extreme mood swings, and drug or alcohol use.  Such children have never met an argument they didn’t like, and tantrums are second nature to them.

Because they lack both the knowledge of and insight into their condition, children are unlikely to complain of depression…if they admit to personal struggles at all.  More common will be the telltale signs of withdrawal or complaints of fatigue, of chronic grumpiness and poor frustration tolerance, or of episodes of which they ‘fly off the handle,’ or are constantly hurting others.

Understandably, parents often miss and dismiss such symptoms, and are only cued in to the gravity of the situation when their child starts making negative self-statements (e.g., “I hate myself!”) or suicidal references (e.g., “I’d be better off dead.”)   Less obvious cues can be seen as an adolescent son or daughter begins ‘medicating’ dysphoric feelings with drugs or alcohol.

While it is normal for children to experience transient periods of sadness, the depressed child has a hard time shaking (as one child put it) “my lousy feelings.”  Many parents, believing their child’s depression to be volitional trouble making, may become only more frustrated as they do their best to solve the problem.

            It is true that comparatively few children will need professional help to deal with ‘the blues,’ but when the blues begin turning a darker shade of grey, then to black, and hope for change begins to fade away, it may be time to do more than simply row further into the stream.

 Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah