As another school year begins, I’ve been reflecting on our world and the angst I feel, along with a huge amount of gratitude and hope. It seems as though there are many negative things happening like natural disasters and the devastation and chaos created by that.Then there is the outpouring of love and support from around the world to help support those affected. For many kids, a new school year can bring up the same mixture of extreme emotions.
I recently began watching Paper Tigers, a documentary about high school teens who were usually suspended from school due to either poor academic scores or behaviors and now were attending an alternative high school. I watched about the first 30 minutes before stopping. I do plan to finish the movie, but my mind was racing with so many thoughts, I decided to stop and write.
In this documentary, teens were given the opportunity to film themselves to show the effects of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) or trauma. Since I haven’t finished the movie, I can’t speak to what all happens, but initially I can say the kids were affected by pretty severe types of trauma in their life, out in Walla Walla, Washington. Their emotions as a result of this, I would imagine many people would agree, were warranted.
I wonder though how many people think about what I refer to as “everyday trauma” in contrast to these more severe traumas like physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. In my experience, there are many kids being affected by “everyday trauma” and the results of these create fear, depression, anxiety, lack of motivation and even physical illnesses. Just like ACES in the movie.
An “everyday trauma” could be a parent telling their child they are the reason their family is going to break up. Or a child having to go to a different school because they have broken trust with a parent by making poor decisions. Another “everyday trauma” is a child having to go live with another parent because a parent can’t deal with them anymore. An adult telling a child he will never make it through high school much less get to college, because he can’t even follow rules and directions in 4th grade. I would argue that many kids experience “everyday trauma” in school lunch rooms, bathrooms, on sports teams, in locker rooms or on the bus.
Trauma is defined in the dictionary as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. To a child, I believe all of the above-mentioned situations fit that definition. To an adult, we may think it isn’t much of a big deal. My experience with kids tells me a very different story.
How do I see kids reacting to what I’m calling “everyday trauma”? Here are some of the scenarios I believe are traumatic in kids’ lives and resulting unhealthy behaviors to cope.
- Wanting to blend in with the crowd but not knowing how to do that because last year’s attempts led to problems, negative attention and consequences.
- Not having any friends in class and how insanely lonely that feels along with the intense pressure created when majority of the work is now done in groups, knowing how horribly that went in the past.
- Not knowing routines or where to go or how to open lockers or when they might be able to go to the bathroom by themselves or even asking questions about any of these things.
- Pressure of not being able to get classwork done or then the homework and juggling to keep up with sports, religion, music or siblings’ events they go to.
- Fear of being apart from mom and dad and feeling nervous or sick to their stomach but knowing they’ll be told to “sit back down and it’ll go away”… but last year it never went away
- Anxiety of knowing how much they struggle to sit for a long time and how much trouble they got in last year no matter how hard they tried to just “be good”
- Wanting to get all high scores on their report card for participation to earn their parents love and approval but knowing how intense the anxiety is to talk in a large group when every year kids have laughed at them or they just know they sound stupid
- Going out on the playground and not fitting in with anyone and spending the whole time trying not to be seen
- Eating lunch that mom packed and kids making fun of them, taking their food or being too embarrassed to even eat because kids either tease them about being fat or they feel fat
I believe today many kids lack the resilience to deal with the feelings that result from these “everyday traumas”. Add to this the world technology creates where not only do kids have access to things well beyond their developmental understanding, but even if they make good choices or have appropriate limits placed on them by parents, they are still exposed to it. Then we have our fast-paced society where parents are trying to balance jobs, healthy meals, paying bills, taking vacations, getting kids to sports or activities, schedules, their own activities, appointments.
The impact of all of this can be seen on the faces of many kids today who are stressed, anxious, fearful, sad, angry, confused and the list goes on…
How can we help prepare kids for the world we live in? I believe there are some core ideas that can help. This is what I believe kids need:
- To know who we are at our core, not just what we do and what we are good at, so we can stand strong regardless who we are with or the situation
- How to connect with our personal truth and inner wisdom to help guide us as we face unexpected pressures and situations
- Ways to navigate the thoughts in our head that tell us we are dumb, different, weird, not cool, alone, less than or wrong, so we deeply believe and know we are not our thoughts
- Strong connection to ourselves first and foremost, so we can then connect to parents, siblings, friends in a healthy way where we feel safe, understood and accepted, no matter what mistakes we make
- Families who have a strong belief in the power of uniqueness, so home is a safe place to be, think, talk about and experience the world and individual differences are accepted and celebrated, not feared or shamed
- To know how perfectly imperfect we all are and that this is exactly how we were created for our personal journey of growth and self-discovery
- To know we are seen, heard, loved, accepted and that how we feel matters
- Adults in our lives who model healthy living and make time together a priority
Natural disasters and intense trauma can devastate people’s lives. We cover these events and write movies about it. I believe we need to also be more aware of the “everyday trauma” affecting kids who are suffering right near us. When we broaden our definition of trauma, I think we can then answer and address the question, “What is happening to so many kids in our world today?” It’s this very idea that motivates me each and every day to make a difference in the lives of kids.