PTSD and Children: Supportive Insights for Parents with Expert Jolene Philo

Imperfect Love | Jolene Philo | Childhood PTSD

 

PTSD and children—it’s a critical topic. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is increasingly common in our challenging world, and while it’s often difficult to recognize PTSD in adults, it can be even more challenging to determine when a child has PTSD. In fact, there was a time when experts believed children couldn’t develop PTSD. Fortunately, we now appreciate the obvious truth that children can develop PTSD if they witness or learn of a traumatic event that is terrifying, shocking, or potentially threatening to the life, safety, or physical integrity of themselves or others. As sensitive information is discussed, listener discretion is advised, particularly if children are present. Helpful resources are provided in the show notes.

 

Books by Dr. Carla Manly:

Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly

Joy From Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend

Aging Joyfully: A Woman’s Guide to Optimal Health, Relationships, and Fulfillment for Her 50s and Beyond

The Joy of Imperfect Love

 

Books by Jolene Philo:

Does My Child Have PTSD?: What to Do When Your Child Is Hurting from the Inside Out

Sharing Love Abundantly in Special Needs Families: The 5 Love Languages® for Parents Raising Children with Disabilities

Every Child Welcome: A Ministry Handbook for Including Kids with Special Needs

Different Dream Parenting: A Practical Guide to Raising a Child with Special Needs

 

Connect with Dr. Carla Manly:

Website: https://www.drcarlamanly.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/drcarlamanly

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/drcarlamanly/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/drcarlamanly

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carla-marie-manly-8682362b

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@dr.carlamariemanly8543

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@dr_carla_manly

 

Resources:

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: https://www.nctsn.org/about-us/contact-us/get-help-now

How to Find a Trauma Therapist for Kids: https://differentdream.com/2016/10/find-trauma-therapist-kids

Disability and special needs website: https://differentdream.com

Disability and special needs Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DifferentDream

Fiction Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2388180041395036

Down the Gravel Road (fiction website): https://jolenephilo.com

Watch the episode here

 

Listen to the podcast here

 

PTSD and Children: Supportive Insights for Parents with Expert Jolene Philo

Exploring the Symptoms of PTSD and the Path to Healing!

PTSD in children is a critical topic. PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is increasingly common in our challenging world. While it’s often difficult to recognize in adults, it can be even more challenging to determine when a child has PTSD. There was a time not too long ago when experts believed children couldn’t develop PTSD. Fortunately, we appreciate the obvious truth that children surely can develop PTSD if they witness or learn of a traumatic event that is terrifying, shocking, and potentially threatening to life, safety, or the physical integrity of themselves or another person.

We’ll focus on this audience’s real-life question. “I’m a single mom and have two kids in grade school, ages 8 and 10. They both seem more anxious. My ten-year-old got stressed after hearing about a school shooting on the news. I tried to talk to them about it but they said they were fine. The younger one is waking up with nightmares. Is this PTSD?” That question is the focus of this episode. Please note that this episode contains sensitive information that may be upsetting for children. Reading discretion is advised.

 

Imperfect Love | Jolene Philo | Childhood PTSD

 

In this episode, I’m joined by a very special guest, Jolene Philo, who will be sharing her expertise on childhood PTSD. Jolene is the author of the tremendous book, Does My Child Have PTSD?: What to Do When Your Child Is Hurting from the Inside Out. Welcome to the show, Jolene.

Thank you for having me. It’s great to be with you.

It’s such a joy to be talking with you about this important topic. Thank you for your time. Before we dive into the audience’s question, could you tell us a little bit about what makes you you?

I’m a writer. I love to write so that’s one of the things about me. I am also a former teacher so I worked a lot with children for a lot of years. I’m a mom. Our oldest child was born with a birth condition that required immediate surgery and a number of surgeries by the time he was five, which is what got me into writing about disability and special needs.

When he was a young adult, he was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to all the medical attention and invasive procedures he’d had as a very young child. Since then going with him, accompanying him to treatment, and then later our son-in-law, when he went for treatment, led me to think somebody needed to write a book about this topic, which eventually ended up in the book you mentioned, Does My Child Have PTSD?

PTSD IN CHILDREN IS REAL! In a world that is increasingly chaotic and anxiety-inducing, many children develop PTSD. Join Dr. Carla and Jolene Philo for an enlightening exploration into how to notice the signs of childhood PTSD and how to get on the… Click To Tweet

Thank you for that very personal information. Thank you for sharing that and for writing this much-needed book. A question about your son. Did he live in his entire childhood with PTSD before it was diagnosed?

Yes. He was born in 1982 and that was back when people didn’t think children could have PTSD or that he would even have any memory of all the surgeries that he went through from birth to age five. We didn’t have a before child and an after child, before and after the trauma, to even look and see what has changed. We only had a child who had always dealt with trauma. He did very well until he hit middle school and then high school. We started seeing some troubling behaviors.

It took a long time after that until his young adulthood before we were able to pinpoint what it was. It was one of those things. We had no idea what it was. We knew something was going on and it probably had to do with all of that surgery he’d had. Other than that, his life was quite secure and stable. You live with it and then when you have the opportunity to do something about it, you do.

Thank you for expressing that critical piece about you do not have a before and after child. That can make it especially difficult to diagnose because your son was always needing attention. You never had the “normal child.” You always had a child who was undergoing some very serious and invasive procedure.

When we look at other parents who may be in a similar situation where they don’t have a before-and-after child, we can see for them how that would be. You have this wonderful educational background where you would see different children in the classroom and know what was normal behavior and exceptional or abnormal behavior. For parents who don’t have that before and after where the child was always showing something, what were some of the symptoms your son was showing?

DOES YOUR CHILD HAVE PTSD? From fears of school shootings to worries about the environment, children are exposed to traumatizing stimuli every day. Join Dr. Carla and PTSD expert Jolene Philo for a critical discussion into the symptoms of childhood… Click To Tweet

We didn’t see a lot of them when he was young. His last surgery was when he was 5 and then he didn’t have any more until 15. In those ten years, he lived a very average childhood and seemed to do very well. He was very bright so he did well in school. I was a teacher in the school where he was so he felt very secure and supported. We didn’t see a lot of behaviors other than when he was very young, he hated going to the doctor and seeing a doctor who was in a white coat and had a stethoscope. He would try to get away. We saw that avoidance behavior but we didn’t see much else until he hit middle school.

We did what you’re supposed to do when you have middle schoolers. We started letting him make more of his decisions, gave him a little bit more autonomy, and expected him to be more responsible. That’s when we started seeing a lot of impulsiveness. He was not working up to his potential. I don’t want to go into it a lot because he’s an adult living his life.

Whenever he felt threatened or perceived a threat, he would do some form of running away. The flight was his process. At the same time, he wanted to maintain a close relationship with us. There was always a tug-of-war for him. Until we were able to get the treatment and figure out what was driving those behaviors, we didn’t know how to help him.

We don’t want to go any deeper because it is his adult life. You see that it was the flight. For all of us, what we see with PTSD, is there is that fight-flight response. Many people don’t realize that it can manifest as fight, flight, freeze, or appease. Your son defaulted to the flight. Thank you for that beautiful background. It’s a wonderful way to dive into the question.

In this question, the mom is seeing a before and after behavior. We’re seeing that it’s getting worse. We can see that this exposure, at least for one of the children, to hearing about this school shooting on the news, seems to have been at least a pivotal part of making the anxiety worse. I’m not saying that there wasn’t anxiety before because the world has a lot of anxiety-inducing situations in it. What would you say to this mother who’s saying, “Is this PTSD?”

CHILDREN OFTEN SUFFER SILENTLY FROM PTSD! Trauma-inducing stimuli seem to wait at every turn, and children are increasingly suffering from trauma. Join Dr. Carla and expert Jolene Philo for a thoughtful discussion on the symptoms of childhood PTSD and… Click To Tweet

The first thing I would say is I am not a mental healthcare therapist or counselor and I can’t diagnose. I am a mom and a teacher. I’ve researched this topic but I can’t make a diagnosis. What I can say is that based on some of the symptoms that you’re describing like sleep disturbances, which is a very common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder in children, and the increasing anxiety, you would be wise to go make an appointment with a good mental health care therapist.

Share your children’s history and let that person make the diagnosis. It sounds like there’s enough going on. Whatever the diagnosis might be for your children, your child and you could use some mental health care and therapy to help understand what’s going on and learn how to deal with the emotions and the behaviors that are happening.

Even though you are not a psychologist or clinician, you are an expert in this field. Your book is phenomenal. It’s a wonderful resource. I never underestimate the power of those who are educators and parents who see and work through issues in real-time with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I never underestimate that form of real-life expertise.

Let’s talk a little bit more about this question. She is a single mom so we can imagine that her plate is exceedingly full with two kiddos. She’s noticed this anxiety. It’s worse. The mom can get some support and give the child some support. Maybe there’s even support available in the school setting. We don’t know that but those are all options. Other than reaching out to her primary care physician who then can refer mental health support, what else would you tell this mom to be on the lookout for regarding symptoms?

I would tell her to keep watching for the sleep disturbances. Do they increase or get worse? Over time, are they going to fade away? If they don’t, then that’s a good reason to go and seek some help. The DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, number 5, when they diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms have to continue more than three months after the original event. If this child is still not sleeping well and is increasingly anxious, and it’s been more than three months since they saw that event happen on television, she should be looking for help.

If the child is still not sleeping well and is becoming increasingly anxious, and it's been more than three months since they saw a traumatic event, they should be looking for help. Click To Tweet

Observing violence and watching a lot of violent events happen on television is one of the causes of post-traumatic stress disorder in kids. If she’s a single mom and perhaps there’s been a divorce, a move, or a partner that’s left who maybe was the children’s father, those can also be causes of trauma in kids that can turn into PTSD. The other one is if her kids were 8 and 10, another thing that probably affected them a lot was the pandemic. They would’ve been maybe 5 or 7 when the pandemic happened, which also would’ve turned their world upside down. That’s another trauma.

I’m hearing more from teachers who are still in the school system that they’re seeing a lot more traumatized and anxious kids after the pandemic. All those things together make it likely. I would also say if her kids are doing anything, are they avoiding anything? Do they want to avoid watching or hearing the news? I wouldn’t let my kids watch the news.

I’m with you on that, Jolene.

That doesn’t need to be on. They’re too little and they don’t need to be watching things about school shootings. I make sure the TV is off as much as possible but still, they’re going to hear or see it somewhere. If they’re avoiding, maybe they avoid the room where they watch that or the building if it’s in a different building, any of those kinds of things.

If the kids startle more easily, they’re always very nervous about going somewhere new or they seem to be on edge, that’s called arousal. “Something terrible already happened so I better be keeping a watch out. What’s the next bad thing that’s going to happen?” They’re on edge. Maybe that makes them more sensitive to bumps and bruises because it’s like, “This could be terrible.” It’s an overreaction to those kinds of things that are normal in life. The bumps and bruises are one. Maybe they’re making up a lot of stomach aches and headaches. Their appetite doesn’t seem as good. That can be caused by that arousal where they’re always on edge waiting for something to happen.

What are we like when that happens? Our stomach tightens up. We don’t feel like eating and we lose our appetite. The same thing happens to kids. That’s one to be watching for. The other one would be, do they seem to get aggressive and out of control more quickly? If you’re on edge and something happens that frightens you, you’re probably going to try and go on the attack. If that thing is happening to this woman’s children, those would be other things to watch for too.

What a wonderful overview. I’ll merge it all together with some thoughts of my own but restate what you said. We’re looking for avoidance behavior, avoiding situations. If it’s a rational avoidance, like a barking dog, we want to avoid that but it’s something that they normally wouldn’t have avoided. Sleep issues, either too much sleep hypersomnia, insomnia, or interrupted sleep. In this one, we’re seeing the nightmares so breakthrough nightmares. Also, a loss of interest in normally fun daily activities. That’s a big one with PTSD.

Change in food. You are saying maybe not eating as much and sometimes eating too much. Some comfort food might be coming in with that. Being on edge, the hyper-arousal, and the hyper-vigilance, being on the alert. When is the intruder coming? Not realizing that they’re not at school or when they’re at school, they’re always being on the lookout for somebody who might be that shooter or even in the home environment thinking that could happen. Overreactions or somatic complaints. Complaints in the belly, maybe headaches, belly upset, getting pseudo colds and flu so they can stay home from school.

Also, even falling apart when they get a paper cut, that kind of thing too.

Those big reactions.

There might be a drop of blood.

It sends them over the edge.

It’s normal for kids to react when there’s a little blood but that big of a reaction when they’re that age by 8 and 10 should not be happening as much. Another thing she might notice is whereas it never was mentioned before, it almost appears that the child is hyperactive. They might have attention deficit disorder. How that ties in with trauma is that if the child is tootling along and playing with Legos and then something about what they’re doing triggers the traumatic event, they’re going to move off to something else. They’re fine there until there’s another trigger. If you’re getting triggered and moving from event to event all the time, it looks like it could be attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity but in reality, it could also be related to a traumatic event.

That hyperactivity or inability to stay focused and concentrate because of the rise in some triggers. Maybe it’s a memory from the past. They’re playing with a Lego set and then it goes pop. That pop might trigger in their mind, “That’s a gun.” They leave that and then get that piece. The other piece you mentioned was that they might be aggressive or reactive. On the other part, I can imagine that children with PTSD may also get withdrawn and clingy.

That’s very true also. For many kids who don’t want to experience the emotions, if they start feeling like they did when the event happened, they push down their emotions and curl up into themselves. You don’t get a reaction from them at all. They get very clingy because they don’t want their security person to leave. You see the separation anxiety.

I can imagine many audiences are sitting and saying, “A lot of these sound like with my child as a normal kid or a teenager, I know there’s nothing going on.” In truth, you’re sending a kindergartener off to school and they’re clingy. You are telling a teenager no and they get mad and upset. They react. Would you tell parents and caregivers that you need to look at whether the reaction is normal for that child? Has it gotten bigger? Is it simply out of place? The reaction doesn’t fit the situation.

The reaction is way too big. It could also be the reaction is not in line with the child’s age. As a five-year-old, they might be clingy. A kindergartener might be clingy going off to school. A fifth grader? Unless there is a history of trauma there and you know they’ve been bullied at school, been unsuccessful, or it’s a new school they’ve never been to, there might be a reason there for that ten-year-old to be clingy. If you’re seeing that, then it means probably some trauma is causing the behavior. If there is no trauma background, then I don’t know what it would be. I don’t think you would be seeing that in a ten-year-old who doesn’t have a traumatic background.

As you were saying very wisely, if the reaction seems abnormal and it’s persisting, it’s not a one-off. Somebody had a bad day at school and doesn’t normally explode but they have a little temper tantrum. You say, “What was that about?” They’re able to verbalize and say, “My best friend rejected me in the lunchroom,” or whatever it is. We understand that in the context. What you’re encouraging parents to do is look for patterns, especially if they’re very different for that child.

Don’t forget. If they persist more than three months after the original traumatic event, that’s when you start getting concerned. You’re going to see those things after a trauma for a while. If you or I were in a car accident, we’d probably have to wake up with a nightmare about it a time or two in the first week and it would gradually fade away if we’re able to process it. If it doesn’t, then you or I from that car accident have gotten PTSD and we need some help processing the memories. The same is true for children.

The important piece for the audience as well is that our brains aren’t fully myelinated until we’re 25. Children’s brains simply don’t have the capacity to process in the way that an adult processes. They don’t even have the capacity, generally, unless a parent has been coaching them from early on to say, “This is how I feel. This is what I need.” We have to understand that kids are operating at a much different level. When we think of how difficult it is for us as adults to recognize PTSD, how difficult it is for children to even understand that they have been exposed to trauma, especially if a parent wasn’t there.

 

Imperfect Love | Jolene Philo | Childhood PTSD

 

Let’s dive into that piece of all of the things about the world, especially with kids being exposed to so much in social media and on their phones. They have a handheld device or are out of the room and they’re watching the news. We normally try and keep them away from the news. They see something we may not see and we’re not at school with them. We may not realize that somebody bullied them or somebody on their phone is engaging in cyberbullying. What would you say to those diligent parents that so much of this can get through the cracks?

Don’t despair because there’s lots of research that show that children who have experienced trauma, and even children who have experienced significant or complex trauma between treatment and the presence of a calm, supportive primary caregiver can do very well, eventually process, and learn to reframe the narrative of their trauma. In other words, figure out the story of it and are able to tell themselves what happened. Once you can do that, you don’t have to be triggered by it.

Those caregivers and therapists can also help them come up with some coping skills for the residual bits of trauma that are remaining and teach them some ways like, “Here’s what you need to do next.” The main thing for us as parents, teachers, and all the people who surround children with their health is we need to make them feel safe. That’s our main job. Give them the security they need so that when the time comes and they have the vocabulary or whatever to talk about the trauma, and then you can help them process it, they still feel safe.

 

 

That’s what this single mom needs to be making, first of all, that she’s doing. “What can I do to make them feel safe? Does that mean we’re going to reduce the lighting in our house and not have screens in the rooms after such a time and there’s only going to be a limited amount of screens? Am I going to have weighted blankets for my kids, fidget toys they can play with, some things that they can watch, or games they can play on a screen that build them up and help them understand their emotions? Am I going to make sure I sit with them every evening for a while where we talk about things, sit close together, and read books?”

All those kinds of things that you can do may not be immediately dealing with the trauma but they are going to make the child feel safe and prepare them for when they’re ready to deal with the trauma. That’s what we did with our son. Remember, we didn’t even know he was dealing with it until he was a young adult.

He told us at one point, “All those painful and traumatic things were stored in me from childhood or early on but so were all the things that you did for me when I was a baby and all the times you held me as I grew up. You made sure I went to bed at the right time. You disciplined me. We sat and read so many books. We did all of that. It is in you.” All those positive things are building this bank of security that will help kids be carried through processing their trauma when the time comes.

Thank you so much, Jolene. That’s all such wise information and doable. Even the busiest parent, you can look a child in the eyes and say, “I love you. Would you like a hug? Would you like to sit with me and read a book? Would you like to sit on my lap? Let’s have five minutes of reading time before bedtime. Let’s sing a song together before we brush our teeth. Let’s sit down and share a meal.” We have to eat anyway. Why not just sit down and have quiet time and question time where we’re not prying with kids but we’re asking open-ended questions where they can share?

I agree with you. No phones at the table or when we’re together because that’s the time when we can connect with children and create what you’re talking about, a safe connection. We can’t control what’s happening too much in the outside world but we can do our best to make the home a safe space where the child knows, “Mom’s here. Caregiver’s here. Grandma’s here. Dad’s here. This is a safe place where someone sees me and meets my needs.” What do you think of that?

That’s true. The home should be a place of safety. Another thing we can do in the home is start equipping our children by teaching them skills. Think of a four-year-old. They don’t know how to wash dishes, make their bed, and all of those things that we teach them. Even the little chores we do like asking them to help you make some cookies, help you set the table, or learn how to fold the washcloths, how to pound a nail, how to fix a little thing, or whatever it is. All those things are an opportunity to say, “Look what you’ve learned. Look what you can do.”

 

Imperfect Love | Jolene Philo | Childhood PTSD

 

What we’re telling them and showing them is, “I don’t have to stay here in this helpless position. I can learn and grow.” They’re gaining a voice, advocacy, and self-agency. As they learn those things, it also helps them see, “I can go out in the world and learn this thing from my first-grade or seventh-grade teacher.” You’re learning more skills. With all those new things, the unknown becomes less fearful and fear-inducing because they have a track record of, “I can do hard things and learn new stuff.”

You are pointing out such incredible nuggets of gold. When you look at that piece, it’s the smallest step that builds personal agency like making a pancake, folding a towel, changing chores into let’s cooperate, co-opting adventures. It’s a simple thing of being able to pound a nail, turn a screwdriver, or pick a daffodil. Allow children to see that in the world, we can sometimes feel powerless. Trauma makes us certainly feel exceedingly powerless.

When we feel powerless, we feel anxious and scared. That’s a natural response. Help them find power in these small baby-step activities that are within their developmental range. I love that you brought that up because it’s critical. Jolene, other activities such as teaching kids stretching or breathing, or exercise as a way to move and feel their emotions and bodies, what do you think of things like that?

Breathing is one of the main ones. Teaching them how to take some deep breaths to center themselves gives them time for their emotions to settle a little bit. You mentioned exercise, which is wonderful. Yoga poses and stretches have been shown to do a lot for people who are dealing with stress, especially children. That’s a good one. Exercising like going out and running around for a while, riding a bike, or doing some physical stuff in the yard if you’ve got a yard can be very helpful too.

If you do have a child who’s living with a lot of trauma that hasn’t been processed, it’s a way of expelling some of the energy that builds up within a person who’s trying to cope with those nebulous feelings of what happened to them and what’s dangerous out here. Exercise is a good one. Fun things too like going out and blowing bubbles can be another one that’s good. It’s like a breathing exercise.

Anything related to art and music can be very good. They go past our words and can put us in touch with our feelings and nonverbal memories in a way. Things like pet therapy can be good or doing things like taking horseback lessons so that you’re near a horse and feeling them breathe. All of those kinds of things can be very helpful.

They’re all fabulous and most of them are exceedingly doable like hugging a pet. If you don’t have a pet, see if you can hug the neighbor’s pet. Most of those things are accessible and we tend to underestimate them. There’s new research on the power of creativity to build resilience in children. It doesn’t have to be big creativity. It can be a coloring book, making music with your hands, clapping, singing, or baking cookies. Whether you are a single parent, a single grandparent, a single caregiver, or whatever it is, these are all things that we can do.

You talked about yoga. One of my favorite poses to do with little kids is a child’s pose because it’s so empowering. We can all do a child’s pose if we’re stressed. Get down at home to be able to do that or in grandma’s living room. Go into the child’s pose, call a time-out, and breathe. Those are beautiful strategies that can help a child learn that they have control and they can self-regulate.

Another that is fun for kids is imaginative play. Give them lots of time to play with their dolls or trucks. Listen in to what they’re talking about when they’re doing it. For one thing, it gives you a window into a child’s world. My favorite thing about teaching was entering their world, getting to play, being creative, and being silly. The rules didn’t matter because you don’t quite understand the rules of adults when you’re a child. There’s so much more freedom. Give kids lots of time for those things. Dressing up with clothes and Play-Doh so they’re feeling things. You can do that.

When you give children lots of time to play and listen to what they're talking about while they're doing it, it gives you a window into their world. Click To Tweet

It sounds like maybe these are things only for up to five-year-olds but you get older kids working with Play-Doh and they have a ball with it. You get them working. If you have a bunch of costumes out, you don’t know, at some point, they may have a show to do for you. They’ll have written something up and want to perform it. You find out where they are and who they are by doing that. We as the caregivers can’t support them. Sometimes they’re able to express in that dramatic play what happened to them or how they’re feeling in ways that they can’t in a regular conversation.

Thank you for offering even more clarity about other activities. I’m thinking about sand tray therapy, sandbox therapy, and all of those things. If a parent wants to see what’s happening and maybe help them with some healing, allow them to play. I love how you said to listen in. Often, if we see a child who’s been traumatized, the play can become a little bit violent. They can act out their trauma sometimes without us realizing if we’re not paying attention.

We might find out what the trauma was in a way too. I have a friend who has a daughter who was in an orphanage in the Ukraine and she had a physical disability. They adopted her shortly before she would go to the orphanage, where at that time, in the ‘90s, children were left there to fade away. The mother called me and said, “Jolene, should I be worried because my little girl is playing with her dolls? I heard her say, ‘If you aren’t good, I’m going to tie you up in bed.’” Where does a young child get that idea except from life events?

Young children get ideas from life events. Click To Tweet

That is called repetitive recreation of the traumatic event in play. When we listen to our kids, we can key into that and see that’s something like, “Maybe we need to go and provide some therapy for my child to get through that.” There’s a wonderful book called Trauma-Proofing Your Kids by Peter Levine and Maggie Kline. It has all sorts of activities that parents can do with their children to help them process trauma and deal with those feelings. Also, maybe be able to get through them and process them before they turn into post-traumatic stress disorder, which is what we want.

It’s so interesting because not every adult who witnesses the same event or is part of the same event will develop PTSD. It’s the same for children. It’s all about the child, their DNA, their personality, and the family environment. There’s no judgment about whether or not the child develops PTSD. Realize that we are all unique individuals. We all experience and respond to traumatic events and information in different ways. It’s for caregivers and parents to realize that this is a big topic. If you are noticing something and it feels off, it’s always wise to reach out to a psychologist, a child psychiatrist, or someone who can be with your child one-on-one, do the assessment, and then help you create healthy patterns for healing, and moving forward.

Jolene, I have so much more to talk to you about but our time is drawing to a close. I want to say one more piece to ask you for your insight on this. Going back to the audience’s question, she’s seeing the anxiety and nightmares. I’m aware that many kids are waking up with nightmares. Before we get the child into treatment, sometimes the child continues to have nightmares until the treatment or the therapy has taken hold. Can you offer 1 or 2 ideas for that very upset, forlorn child and a very scared parent when there are nightmares?

I would be as gentle with the child as possible. If the child is very upset, it’s okay for them to come in and sleep in your room. I have a daughter whose bedroom was upstairs and we were downstairs. Her older brother was gone by then so she was the only one upstairs. For a long time, she gets scared of something in the night and wants to come down.

As she got older, we were like, “You can still come down but you can’t sleep in our bed anymore.” First, it was like, “You can come down but you crawl in and don’t wake us up when you climb in. Just get in.” Now, it’s like, “You can come in and you can’t wake us up. You can bring your pillow and your sleeping bag. Put it beside our bed.” She did that for a long time and it was okay. It’s okay for us to do that with our children.

If you’ve got a young child, you might also make sure that they’ve got some comfort items that you can make sure they bring with them. Is it their teddy bear, a certain doll, a blanket, or all three? Let them have that if they’re upset. Make sure they have a nightlight if that’s going to help. Keep the door open into the hall and have the hall light on. Don’t try to rationally solve their nightmare in the middle of the night. You can’t talk to them rationally and say, “Everything’s okay, I’ve checked. There’s nothing here.” They’re going to understand that when they’re in the throes of a nightmare. You have to deal with them at an emotional level and provide the emotional comfort that they need during that time.

Thank you for that and for highlighting that part. If we go cognitive on children and say, “No, it’s not there. Stop crying or fussing. It’s not real,” that only makes them feel more scared, unseen, unheard, and less safe. Sometimes, it’s good to sit with the child, hold them, and say, “Would you like me to hold you, hug you, rub your hair, and sink you to sleep?”

Sometimes we’re going to bring the child toward the bedroom with a sleeping bag so that they feel that comfort. Build that internal capacity eventually to regulate themselves and differentiate between the nightmares. Sometimes that doesn’t come right away. It takes a lot of attunement to that child before that child builds that internal strength to be okay in their bed.

We expect emotionally way more from our children than when they’re ready. It’s a real jagged upward curve. It will be like you’re talking to a little adult at one point and they seem so mature and focused. They’ll turn around and say, “I’m still scared that there’s a boogeyman under my bed at night.” We have to support them along the way. That’s our job. Our job isn’t to expect them to be adults when they’re ten. Our job is to help them grow into the adults they’ll become. By the time they’re 26, their brains are fully developed.

 

 

Even when our brains are fully developed, it is so true that we as adults can think there is a boogeyman under the beds. With our kids, we get the broom and sweep away the boogeyman. We have them check with us that the boogeyman’s still not there. We realized that even as adults, no matter how old we are, we still get afraid.

Somebody telling us not to be afraid generally doesn’t do the trick. It’s somebody looking at us, the tuning test, and saying, “I’m here for you. I love you. How can I support you? Let me give you a hug.” It’s those same things kiddos want. They need quite a lot more for us to slow down and be with them. Jolene, any other pieces of incredible wisdom to share as we wind down?

Try to see the world and the events happening to your child through a child’s eyes rather than through your own. As an adult, we have so many more resources. We’re bigger and taller. We have skills. Something that to us seems like nothing, to a child is huge because they’ve never seen it before. It looks bigger because they’re smaller. They don’t have enough skills to deal with it. They maybe don’t even have the language to deal with it. We need to look at it like, “What would this look like if I was a child again? What did this look like to me when I was a child?” Try to respond to your child from that level of understanding instead of your adult level of understanding.

 

 

I have one more piece. This comes up often with clients where they’ll report to me something that happened when they were kids. One of the most common ones that causes trauma that we eventually find is when a child is young and experienced the death of a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, an aunt, or an uncle. It was their first experience with death. The parents said, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it.” We don’t realize that when we shut down on kids, instead of meeting them at their level and saying, “Yes, grandpa died. What would you want to know,” often that child goes back to safety. The child wants to know, “Mom, Dad, you’re my people. Are you going to die too?”

As you were saying, take that moment, tune into the child at their level, and see what they need to hear and what they want so they can feel safe and loved. What would you say for that piece where a child is on something that simple? There’s so much potential for trauma and we don’t even realize it. What would you say about that particular thing with death? When there is a death, maybe somebody at school did die or grandpa passed away, what is the piece that you would counsel for a child? What would you say to the parent?

I tell the parent to ask the child, “Do you have any questions? What do you want to know about this?” I would ask that and then follow the child’s lead. When I was teaching, that happened one time. I had a student whose grandfather died rather unexpectedly. The mom came and said, “Do you know what our daughter’s question was?” I said, “I don’t know. She wanted to know, ‘Does Grandpa wear shoes in the casket?’” They put shoes on him. I don’t know if they knew who the mortician was but they let him explain that to her and everything about the casket. Don’t assume it’s some big life-changing emotional question. It could just be curiosity.

Even if it is a big question like, “Mom and Dad, are you going to die next?” Let’s talk about that. Otherwise, we end up traumatizing the child by withholding information. Thank you for entertaining that last question. We’re never perfect as parents no matter how hard we try but one thing we can do is tune into a kid’s needs and each kid has different needs.

Be able to pause for a minute and say, “What’s going on? What are your questions?” We might not have the answers. Those parents didn’t have the answers so they turned to someone who did, who was the mortician. What a beautiful way to end our time together. Jolene, thank you. You have so much to offer. Where can our audience find you?

I have a website that is called www.DifferentDream.com. You can go there to have many of your questions about disability, parenting, mental health issues, and that kind of thing answered. You can also visit me at my other website, www.JolenePhilo.com, which is where I talk about the fiction that I write. I’m working on a fiction mystery series set out where I taught country school many years ago. That’s my creative release so that I have something fun to do instead of always talking about serious topics.

You walk the talk. You have the creativity to keep you moving forward and resilient. Thank you, Jolene. It has been such a pleasure, Jolene.

It’s great to be with you. Thank you.

 

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About Jolene Philo

Imperfect Love | Jolene Philo | Childhood PTSDJolene Philo is a PTSD expert who grew up in a caregiving family and raised a son with medical special needs. As a teacher, she created an inclusive classroom for children with disabilities for 25 years. Her books for the special needs and disability community, include “Does My Child Have PTSD?” and “Sharing Love Abundantly with Special Needs Families: The 5 Love Languages® for Parents Raising Children with Disabilities.” Jolene hosts the award-winning blog, www.DifferentDream.com. “See Jane Dance!,” the third book in her series featuring characters with disabilities, was released in October 2023.

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