When kids feel trauma


“Phsshhhhh…(exploding sounds) Pssshhhhhh ….woooooo” Rev. Alika Galloway, traveling, recounted Jaden’s reaction when she asked him by phone what had happened in the May 22 North Minneapolis tornado. “But you’re okay?” she asked, or something like that.

“Pssshhhhhh ….woooooo….” he answered, repeating what he had heard.

“My baby’s reduced to sound!” she cried out. “The tornado has taken… his… words. The children were not fine.”

With this story, Galloway opened the day July 16 titled “So, How are the children? A conference on recovery, resiliency, and restoration.”

In the Masai tradition, the answer to “So, how are the children?” tells you whether the rest of the tribe is fine. “We are each other’s business. If you cut the parents, the children do the bleeding,” Galloway said.

And if that didn’t move a person to tears, a Minneapolis Youth Congress video might. It showed young people’s matter of fact comments about how they are helping to rebuild after the tornado, whether it’s cleaning up debris or scraping a yet-younger person back together after a meltdown.

This room full of folks gathered at UROC, the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research Outreach/Engagement Center for tips on working with disaster-affected youth, how to recognize if healing is not taking place, a healthy dose of self-care affirmation, storytelling and a call to stay together as a community.

In plenaries led by BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, the group, mostly “sisters” with a few “brothers,” heard “how children inform us about the accurate use of power.” Garrett-Akinsanya with “all sorts of letters behind her name” as Galloway put it, is a member of the Association of Black Psychologists, is executive director of the African American Child Wellness Institute and founder/president of Brakins Consulting and Psychological Services. They shortened her name to “Dr. B” soon enough.

“Children are born to love each other. As adults, we spend most of our time trying to get back to how we were as children,” after others in our lives have messed up our heads. Dr. B reminded us of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where one has to have the basics of life secured before rising to have love, self-esteem, and beyond. She told how “40 percent of babies” living in poverty have “have anxious or insecure attachments,” “disorganized attachments” (chronic, such as a drug-addicted parent) or “disruptive attachments,” such as to a parent who is basically sober but falls off the wagon once in a while. And this was without any tornado or other natural disaster.

She reported a survey, also pre-tornado, saying Northside people report more days of poor mental health than residents of Minneapolis and Hennepin County in general. Many are afraid to seek help, but “the community wants help,” Dr. B said.

After two sets of breakout sessions and lunch together in smaller groups, various people spoke up with key points they’d noted.

The trees are a symbol. “Everyone talks about the trees being gone, it’s what hurt the most.” It would be very important for youth to be involved in replanting trees, and in other recovery efforts. Youth can also have roles as reporters, and share their stories and perspectives.

“The Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as for opportunity.” “Some youth have become more connected to their families.” The need to work together may have substituted for the temptation to engage in gang activity or conflicts.

“Before signing our kids up for therapy, we should sign up ourselves.” “You can have drills” on what to do in a disaster.

“David Carson talked about video games that set children up for violence. I’d like to see a community group for drumming, praying, laying on of hands.”

Dr. B said it would be appropriate, with the vast majority of those affected being black, that healing should be Afro-centric. “Kinesthetic learning, collaborating—working together is not cheating. Parenting is something you should never do alone.”

“What about the brothers?” someone posed, and a gasp of “Yes” rose up. “Look at our men, our male children, teenagers. It (trauma stress) will come out in ways not planned.” “We can’t ask for help, anyways, and then add this.”

A woman said she’d seen “massive numbers of brothers with chain saws” right away after the storm. “How do we keep that going? They’re doing their part to give shelter to us, feeling strong.”
Dr. B brought the discussion around to the need to “reach for each other.” To “develop an extended family with an endless capacity to love.”

“You don’t have to teach a cut to heal, just create the right conditions. The purpose is to be well. We have a right to be well.” Garrett-Akinsanya told a story of elephants crossing a river and realizing they’d left one small one behind. The entire herd went back and encircled the little one and brought it across the river.

All recited Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise. Garrett-Akinsanya said, “If the elephants can do it, why can’t we? Every child is our child, every mother is our sister, every father is our brother…on your worst day you can be someone’s best hope. Our community needs us to rise.”

Hints for dealing with trauma, distilled from one of the break-out sessions and other discussion:

  • Children and youth may fear when there are changes in the weather, increase acting out, and have shaken assumptions about their own safety.
  • Young people want to be part of the cleanup and recovery effort.
  • Praise and recognize responsible behavior and reassure children that their responses are normal. Let kids talk, let them cry, let them express themselves when they start to talk about it. Tell them it’s okay to be scared, and that you are here to take care of them. They may regress to thumb sucking or bed wetting; try to help them put feelings into words rather than punishing them. If a child is not able to talk, encourage them to express feelings through coloring, drawing, or painting.
  • A child may re-enact the disaster, draw pictures of the destruction; it’s an appropriate response. But, if they seem to get stuck in that mode for more than six weeks and don’t seem to be making other progress, it’s time to get them professional help.
  • Parents can “model vulnerability,” let kids know that you might be scared yourself or not know all the answers, but then show them how to figure out what to do.
  • One teacher described being with the kids when school first reopened post-tornado, having them draw pictures, tell stories, “scream out the scariness.” Many kids focused on how their siblings responded. Research shows there are similarities in how a traumatic event affects children, elders, and other groups that are particularly vulnerable. Seeing how elders, and younger children heal inspires youth and older children.
  • “We need to be more neighborly, help each other’s kids,” particularly, as others added, “self-medicating is getting worse,” and “street dealing is getting worse, it’s changing areas.”

A helpful website is www.nctsn.org—the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.