We are living through a period of uncertainty that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. Recommendations for physical distancing, worries about health and finances, and juggling work and childcare responsibilities can lead to considerable stress for parents. These and other burdens are experienced disproportionately by black and brown communities, frontline workers, the poor, and caregivers of children with disabilities.
As a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma, parents and students have been asking me, “Are pandemics traumatic?” My answer… it depends. Although many children and adults will be resilient, others may experience significant and lasting traumatic stress reactions, including changes in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. As the pandemic lingers, most of us have some anxiety, upset, and fatigue. Yet, individuals have varying degrees of reaction. There is an important distinction between normative levels of stress/anxiety and traumatic dysregulation—difficulty regulating emotional responses.
What makes an experience potentially traumatic?
Traumatic events involve the personal experience of danger that:
- Comes out of the blue, leaving little opportunity to prepare
- Is not in our control, leading to helplessness
- Includes the reality of chaos in the “real world” and the internal experience of feeling overwhelmed
Certainly, for many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic fits these criteria. Our routines of daily life are markedly changed. There was little warning of the coming disruptions. Now, we may feel powerless over returning to “normal.”
Our children are also affected. They miss their friends and teachers. The need to follow strict rules and wear strange masks may lead to confusion or anger. Children may wonder, “Will this ever end?” For some neurodiverse children, school closures mean a lack of needed interventions for their social, emotional, behavioral, and academic needs.
When pre-existing strengths, capacities, and coping strategies are outmatched by vulnerabilities brought on by the pandemic, when the level of impact is significant (for example, loss of a loved one or extreme financial distress), and/or when there is insufficient external support, individuals, including children, may become overwhelmed and traumatized.
Fortunately, a trauma lens can inform our parenting as the pandemic continues. Research has shown that social support is a key protective factor following upsetting experiences. Care and concern from a trusted adult are what children need most right now.
Tips for trauma-informed parenting
- Most importantly, prepare to meet your child’s needs by recognizing what you are experiencing and caring for yourself.
- Practice self-compassion. Imagine how a friend might respond to your self-criticism and replace inaccurate, unhelpful thoughts with encouraging ones.
- Reduce your child’s sense of being overwhelmed by listening and responding to concerns.
- Increase predictability in your child’s environment by developing and maintaining reasonable routines.
- Provide structure but be flexible (remembering self-compassion when attempts fall flat).
- Increase your child’s feelings of control by providing age-appropriate choices (allow your child to select clothing, snacks).
Remember that your child does not need a perfect parent. Instead, your presence and caring support are what your child needs most, now and always.
Megan Goslin, PhD is a clinical psychologist and associate research scientist in the Yale Child Study Center. She has been providing treatment and assessment to children and adolescents for 15 years.