Helping children to survive horror

March 31, 1996|By SARA ENGRAM

MERCIFULLY free of world attention, the people of Dunblane, Scotland are now going about the hard work of getting back to normal -- or as normal as life can be after a tragedy as unimaginable as the massacre of 5- and 6-year-old schoolchildren by an aggrieved misfit.

Meanwhile, with the approach of the one-year anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, memories will resurface of another horror in which the deaths of children are embedded in the public mind.

Trauma, the preferred technical term for these horrific events, takes a toll on anyone. But for children, the damage can be especially severe. Dr. Carlton Munson, head of the doctoral program at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work, has worked extensively with children who have experienced some form of trauma. He notes that it is only in the past decade or so that research on the effects of trauma on children began in earnest. There is still much we do not know about its effects on young lives.

Already, though, some things are clear. For instance, there is a difference between the damage done by a single, unusual traumatic event, like the shootings in Scotland or the explosion in Oklahoma City, and the sinister effects of repeated instances of trauma.

This second form of trauma could include such situations as witnessing or experiencing abuse in the home or living in a chronically unsafe situation, whether the daily dangers stem from war and political unrest or from the violence endemic to many drug-infested neighborhoods.

It's sobering also to know that researchers have modified their earlier definition of a traumatic event as something outside the range of normal human experience. Sad to say, these events, whether unexpected instances like Dunblane or Oklahoma City or the constant potential for trauma that clouds the lives of many other children, have become too common for that original definition to hold true.

Instead, researchers now prefer to classify a traumatic event as anything horrifying, life threatening or threatening to the physical integrity of the child. That could include physical danger as well as an event that might not have lingering effects on an adult, such as witnessing police breaking down doors and entering the home, weapons drawn, to arrest someone in the household.

Reason for hope

But if trauma can make deep and disturbing imprints on children, from nightmares to regressive behavior and other symptoms, there is also reason for hope. Over and over, traumatized children have proved they have the resilience to get beyond a tragedy. As Dr. Munson notes, they may never ''get over'' the trauma, but they can get past it and integrate the event into the story of their lives.

What can we do to protect children from trauma, or at least to soften its effects? Probably the most important thing is simply to give children a solid sense of security and physical safety. Children who come from homes where they feel safe, secure and treasured do better than those who lack a nurturing environment or who have not experienced steady bonding or attachment to reliable adults.

That is as true for children in outwardly safe suburbs as for those in inner-city neighborhoods.

Dr. Jesse Harris, dean of the School of Social Work, recalls his work in the late 1980s in Mozambique with young boys who were forced to fight in that country's civil war. Once their trauma was over, they showed great resilience -- in large part because of a tightly-knit social structure that provided community and family support.

Physical safety, emotional security and, above all, reliable adults. These factors can't prevent traumas. But they can nurture the resilience that inoculates children against its worst effects.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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