Children suffer from toxic stress. Here are some tips on how we can help them heal

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Stress and upheaval are harmful at any time, but the pandemic has forced many families on a seemingly endless roller coaster ride. Families and caregivers are worried about what this time of great instability means for their children, so we turned to psychologist Jennifer Vargas Pemberton, who has worked with children and teens for decades, for answers.

Pemberton is an associate professor of educational and counseling psychology in Cal State Northridge’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program and faculty liaison for Strength United, the CSUN charter center that provides trauma services to the community and on the campus. Additionally, she has a private practice and is the Training Director and Crisis Program Manager at the Balboa Boulevard offices of the Child & Family Guidance Center in Northridge.

Overall, Pemberton said she believes families, schools and our communities should take a “trauma-informed” approach, which means having an understanding of traumatic experiences can impact the good. -being general of our children.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You have worked with suicidal children and adolescents and specialized in community health, treatment of child abuse and trauma, and Latino mental health issues. What led you down this path?

I am a first generation Latina. My family emigrated from Costa Rica. My sister and I were the only ones born here and our first language was Spanish. This is part of what motivated me to get involved in the Latino community – to provide needed services to an underserved community.

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I got my bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA, which fueled my interest in mental health. I went to USC for a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling and a doctorate in counseling psychology.

Fieldwork and internships were part of my doctoral journey, and the first was the JADE (Juvenile Assistance Diversion Effort) project at South Gate. This program was for teenagers who had been arrested, and many of the clients were taking risks. Rather than putting them through the prison system, they would follow this program.

My next internship was at the Child and Family Guidance Center [in Northridge] where I work now. I went there for fieldwork. I started in traumatology and I knew he was the right person for me. … I’ve been doing this for 25, 30 years, and when you work with trauma, you see there are other issues like PTSD and depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Members of the medical community sometimes refer to Adverse Childhood Experiences Scores (ACES) when evaluating children. Can you please explain this?

Kaiser [and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] did this study on negative childhood experiences. There are 10 different categories [of adverse experiences]and the higher the score, the more it is associated with negative physical and mental health outcomes.

Before that, there was not this link with trauma and health.

Can you talk about children and toxic stress?

Toxic stress is this prolonged experience of [something] negative, such as abuse or neglect. Being exposed to drug-addicted or mentally ill relatives. Chronic exposure to traumatic experiences.

I take a trauma-informed approach. When people think of trauma, most of them think of feelings and emotions like sadness and depression. … A trauma-informed approach is much more holistic. [What’s] impact [of trauma] on the brain? On [children’s] emotional development and regulation? [What’s] the impact on their cognition… on their physiological state? On their behavior? On their self-esteem?

Think of the pandemic. If, in 2018, we had said to ourselves: “Imagine that there is a virus there. Imagine that there are millions of deaths. Imagine the whole world shutting down and everyone having to stay indoors 24 hours a day. Hospitals are overwhelmed and overloaded.

It sounds like describing a movie.

But that’s what happened to us. The trauma we have experienced – especially for children – is that our basic physiological safety has been compromised. There were all these sudden deaths in families. Many children have lost their parents, grandparents and extended family.

For underserved communities, the order of stay-at-home was somewhat different. When you live with multiple families in a very enclosed space — maybe a one-bedroom apartment — if you already had anxiety or depression, that fueled that. So during the pandemic we have seen higher rates of depression, anxiety and stress.

If you had domestic violence at home, that confinement order meant that you were home with an abuser and there was no escape… It was very scary for a lot of families.

How do children experience grief?

For children, this can be very confusing.

When supporting someone through the healing process, you want to start by validating and normalizing the feelings, and then helping them process the feelings related to the loss. Talk about positive memories and redefine relationships.

Learning to regulate emotionally is incredibly helpful, whether dealing with grief or any other mental health issue.

How can children be heard if they don’t have the vocabulary to talk about their own mental health?

Their behaviors speak louder than words. Their behaviors are how children communicate about what is going on with them. They [might] to withdraw or be silent, or be aggressive and hit someone. If they are teenagers, they [might] running away or abusing substances or cutting themselves.

If agencies take a trauma-informed approach, they look at the person holistically, which includes their experiences and not just the symptoms.

If you take a trauma-informed approach to school, if you have kids who don’t do their homework or who are aggressive, you’re not going to look at that kid and say, “He’s a lazy kid.” . Instead, you [ask] “What’s going on with this child?”

If a doctor can figure out that there is this trauma, they will put the children in touch with the appropriate mental health service.

Do you think the rate and level of trauma is decreasing?

To some extent — absolutely. COVID hasn’t gone away, but we don’t have a stay-at-home order, and the kids are going back to school and socializing and hanging out. We are moving forward.

Are we completely healed and overwhelmed? Absolutely not.

Sometimes it seems that our public health system does not have the capacity to help all those who have suffered trauma and psychic ailments during the pandemic. What other resources are available for children and families in marginalized communities?

The Department of Mental Health has many contracted agencies throughout the county. There are also centers that are not part of the department. There are centers that offer case management therapy, psychological helpline assessment, and psychiatric medication. Schools have therapists on campus.

There are grief centers like Our House Grief Support Center. Community churches and parks and recreation centers in a community [can help]. If they can get the kids together in a safe space, they socialize and connect with their peers.

There’s amazing stuff on YouTube like yoga and teaching kids to play guitar – all things that can engage kids in terms of music and art.

By getting children to heal, we [need to] taking a holistic approach including exercise, art, sleep hygiene – it’s huge. Also, basic nutrition. There are applications that I give to my clients and to my students. …. Mindfulness Coach, PTSD coach, free apps created by the government.

Do you hope to find more solutions to move forward, especially for children?

We know that as human beings we have this capacity for resilience and the capacity to heal, and we need to support each other in this. We know some of the strategies we can use to cope. We can be culturally sensitive. I’m hopeful…otherwise I couldn’t be in this field.
We see successes. I absolutely believe in recovery and healing.

What can we as a culture…as a society…as a community…do to support our children? How can we help them heal?

As a community, if we are trauma-informed and have compassion, that’s a step up from being critical and criticizing “they should do better”.

Decreasing the shame and stigma of mental health is huge. If someone goes to a doctor, there is no shame. If someone goes to a therapist and takes medication, there is a culture of shame. … We’re starting to move in the direction of trying to normalize mental health.

We all need support and healing, and there are different ways to get it. [We can] to be more strength-based, to believe in our own strength… to give ourselves grace.

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