I’ve been talking with Mara Mulcahy, LICSW, MSW a clinical social worker and childhood trauma specialist. Scroll down for last week’s portion of this two part interview.
Our topic is What Parents Can Do to Help their Children at Home after a Trauma
Me: I’m a big believer in therapeutic stories and wrote one for Jonah after his rat died.
Mara: Therapeutic stories are great. Parents may not be as comfortable sitting down and writing a story but there are many therapeutic stories available at the library or book store (she named a certain chain store but I shall take the liberty of making a plug for local independent book stores here: Go Third Place Books! Go Elliot Bay Book Company!) Kids tend to do best speaking and talking about issues in displacement, meaning dealing with feelings in a bit of a detached but related way. This makes them more manageable.
Parents can also just tell their kids about anything that has happened to them that was similar to what the child has gone through.
(Me: As long as the story turns out okay. No existentialist, nihilist messages here, folks! Save Ionesco for the theatre).
This normalizes the experience which reduces isolation. Even independent of the trauma, stories give a context beyond the immediate.
Me: Which brings us to God (or Higher Power, Great Spirit, Goddess, Universal Intelligence, Krishna, Buddha, etc.). For families with a spiritual belief system, making sense of suffering and death is already a part of their culture and conversation. In my family I tell my boys that death is “going home to God.” How do parents who do not have a spiritual belief system comfort their children when death or trauma occurs?
Mara: Parents without a developed spiritual belief system should know that what they believe (or do not believe) may not bring closure or offer comfort to their child. You can make meaning of the event by creating a ritual that is tied to not knowing or to the unknown without being tied to a belief in God. You can mark closure or celebrate what was through ritual. And you can find help talking to a friend who has a spiritual belief system.
Me: Given that some trauma is inevitable, how can we foster resiliency?
Mara: By creating a family foundation of communication.
By knowing what is comforting to us as well as to our child
By knowing your communication style as well as your child’s. For instance Lila (Mara’s daughter) will literally put her hands over her ears to shut me up sometimes. She likes less words and more proximity.
Don’t be afraid to talk about a loss someone else has had with your child. As long as you hold short, age appropriate conversations (don’t introduce overwhelming threats).
Me: I want to add that parents should not watch television news in front of children. Television news is almost entirely about what is wrong in the world and so it does not foster a safe world view. Children (and adults) need to feel safe to function at the top of their emotional and neurological capacity. The “fight, flight or freeze” mechanism in the brain acts as a system override, hijacking the brain’s creative thinking and problem solving capacity until the threat is perceived as being over. Threats that we are powerless to neutralize (acts of terrorism, for instance) are treated exactly the same way as threats we can effect (a snake on the path ahead of us, for instance) by our brains: increased cortisol production, decreased digestion, increased glucose supply to muscles, decreased capacity for sleep, etc.. Frankly I’d like to recommend that nobody watch television news and instead subscribe to your local paper or some nice little centrist newspaper like the award-winning (expensive) Christian Science Monitor. Okay, tangent over and out.
Mara: Also parents need to know that it’s okay for them to have their own emotions and express them unless their child is very fragile or feels responsible for the parents’ feelings.
Remember there are lots of resources out there, from books to internet to church/temple/mosque to therapy to friends.
Me: Wise words indeed! Thank you Mara.