Has the COVID-19 crisis made an already stressful back-to-school time even more intense? Dr. Nanika Coor explains how to use use a trauma-informed parenting approach to support your family through this transition.
Everyone has experienced increased stress in the last year because of the constraints of COVID-19 and ever-shifting CDC guidelines, which only makes this year's back-to-school period more intense.
Ever since the pandemic began, parents in my practice have described aggressive, impulsive, or “numbed out” behaviors in their children and in themselves as a response to this stress. Isolation and inequitable access to basic needs like food, housing, healthcare, and education, all took a toll on mental health. Parents struggled to work from home while monitoring remote learning. Other parents had no options but to travel to work—potentially putting their whole family at risk—and felt exhausted by the hypervigilance involved in keeping everyone safe.
Black and brown people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Police brutality and the historical trauma of racism led to anti-racist uprisings and conflicts. As if that weren’t enough, families have dealt with contentious divides in political ideologies, especially the politicization of pandemic safety measures. The new Delta variant only adds to the stress and uncertainty.
While we know there are mental health benefits to children returning to school, for some parents it can still feel like choosing between your child’s emotional health or their physical well-being. Kids and families may be overwhelmed with the fear that someone they love might get sick or die, or that they could lose resources allowing them access to food, housing, or health care. Younger kids not yet eligible for a vaccine may be worried about their own safety and that of their unvaccinated peers or siblings.
How can parents help children with their stress or trauma as they transition back to school in such uncertainty, while also managing their own anxiety at the same time?
What is trauma?
Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands, explains that trauma is not an event or an emotional response, but a bodily experience. He describes it as a "spontaneous protective mechanism used by the body to stop or thwart further (or future) potential damage."
Your body's protective response to a stressful event or a series of stressful events—real or imagined—overwhelms your ability to cope. Your brain senses danger and tells your body to engage your nervous system’s survival mode. In survival mode, your brain perceives and responds to the world only in terms of good or bad; the ability to perceive nuance and think clearly goes offline. Your nervous system can become mobilized, ready to fight or flee, or immobilized, preparing to "play dead" in order to survive.
Survival mode can result from the fear of threat or harm to your body, but also from threats to what you believe in, what you think, or how you want to live your life. Long after the traumatic experience is over, even a small suggestion or hint of the original event—a trigger—can reactivate the initial survival mode response. The emotions and sensations you experience can cause you to act aggressively, impulsively, or freeze up, all of which can impact your everyday life.
6 signs your child may be experiencing a traumatic stress reaction
- Your child’s mood or behavior is consistently and significantly different from past moods or behaviors.
- These changes have impaired your child’s ability to learn, play, eat, sleep, or get along with peers or family members.
- Younger children may be defiant, resistant, or clingy, and may hit or have tantrums.
- Teens may sleep or eat too much or too little, ruminate on or deny trauma, and engage in risky behavior or substance use.
- The change in behavior clearly began at the onset of the pandemic, or after a major event during the pandemic that your child had trouble dealing with.
- Your child stops enjoying fun experiences they previously loved.
Your body's protective response to a stressful event or a series of stressful events—real or imagined—overwhelms your ability to cope.
7 ways to support your child with trauma-informed parenting
Recognize the impact of stress or trauma on your child. Have a clear understanding that the challenging behaviors and emotional responses you see in your child are reflexive, automatic, and driven by trauma—not deliberate.
Reacting to your child’s challenging behaviors with frustration or resentment can be retraumatizing. Respond with calm to de-escalate: lower your voice, soften your gaze and facial expression, and get on their eye level.
Show acceptance. Validate their struggle: their emotional pain, their dysregulated behavior, and how difficult it is to experience that discomfort. Be patient, provide comfort and affection in ways they accept, don’t take their behavior personally, and stay emotionally available to them.
Understand how your child’s trauma affects your own emotional regulation. When you suspect or know that your child has experienced trauma, your anxiety or guilt may cause you to excessively question your child in an effort to keep them safe. Instead, let them come to you in their own time, give them your full attention when they do, and listen responsively so they feel heard.
Reduce uncertainty. Trauma can leave a child feeling as if nothing is predictable or in their control. Offer opportunities for age-appropriate autonomy. Prepare kids ahead of time for confusing or unpredictable situations. Collaborate with your children about backup plans, and what role everyone will play in handling sudden shifts in routine. Make sure your child experiences safety and consistency—which includes limits and boundaries—along with positive experiences.
Model using relaxation strategies: writing, drawing, intentional breathing, movement, seeking support, or listening to calming music.
Remember that kids’ mood and behavior changes could be symptoms of anxiety, depression, or grief, and not necessarily trauma. While it’s typical for kids to struggle in the first 4-8 "readjustment" weeks of a new school year, it’s important to seek support from your pediatrician or mental health provider for any child whose change in behavior lasts longer than that, especially if you know they’ve been through a stressful experience.
Your mental health matters, too
Stressed parents may be too overwhelmed to recognize their child’s behaviors as trauma-driven rather than misbehavior, or to use their own known coping strategies to deal with the added stress.
It boils down to this: if your own basic needs aren’t met, you’re not going to have the bandwidth to do well when life demands a lot of you. Sending kids back to school in a pandemic demands a lot of you. Prioritize self-care so that your stress doesn’t spill onto your child. Model the importance of reserving time to fill your own cup. Be authentic with your kids about feeling stressed, but also model coping with your emotions, not being consumed by them. Holding your boundaries, standing up for yourself, and being honest with others about your needs is also self-care. Lastly, if your child’s trauma triggers your own unhealed traumas, support from a trauma professional is a way to take good care of yourself and your whole family.
The best thing you can do for your child is to take care of yourself so that you have the capacity to foster a positive relationship with your child.
You can’t prevent trauma or stress to your child entirely—you never know where, when, or what unexpected unpleasantness may occur. But you can commit to not being a source of additional trauma for your children as they transition back to school. Instead, create safety and predictability in their lives. Support your child when they experience trauma by understanding the impact on them, recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress and trauma, and responding in ways that show acceptance without causing further retraumatization.
The best thing you can do for your child is to take care of yourself so that you have the capacity for emotional regulation and the time to foster a positive connection with your child. Trauma-informed parenting not only helps your child heal, but also strengthens your relationship, which benefits the whole family.