We don’t need to worry about forgetting. We have a part of the brain whose job it is to secure all information for future use.I work with children of all ages.
I was on the air with a radio program when the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place. My clinical practice would involve hour after hour of upset parents, confused children, frightened children, and a pervasive sense of doom being communicated by many.
One little boy said, “Ms. Nanette I don’t understand. I saw this newspaper at Kilroy’s grocery store. On the front was that Osama man. Someone had drawn an X through his face and below it said, ‘Wanted Dead or Alive.’ Why would someone draw an X through his face? Why would someone want him dead?”
To work with children is to meet them where they are. We suspend all judgment and feelings and help them with the task at hand. They decide on the task and any good counselor knows this.
Fast forward to 2011. I was working with a teen who was very bright. He had some social awkwardness issues and some family problems thrown in on the side. He also had considerable anger issues and would every now and again find himself in a rage, especially with one of his parents. He was sixteen and he loved coming to counseling.
I asked him if he remembered the 9/11 event. He did. He relayed a detailed story of where he was when the news hit the television. He remembered not understanding why anyone would want to hurt people, hijack a plane, and kill others. He also remembered this being the first time he didn’t feel safe and protected. It was the first time he felt vulnerable. It was his first conscious acknowledgement that his parents couldn’t protect him from everything. He was afraid, he began to worry, and he would become highly anxious. In time he questioned why he should finish high school, go to college, or do anything at all. Why do all that when we can be destroyed at the whim of another?
When bad things happen in the world it affects everyone. We often don’t know just what the effect is, because people stop asking about an event. One event is simply followed by another and another until the pile of events is so deep it is almost unthinkable to try to dig under it all to discover an insight or a clue.
We remember all things, both good and bad. What I mean by memory is the collective accumulation that takes place in our brains of all things that have taken place since the brain began to function all on its own. This includes all the data associated with sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.
We know that the development of a human brain happens in stages. A five-year-old brain is different than a twenty-year-old brain. Skill sets begin to develop early on. We cannot expect an eleven-year-old to be able to do things a parent can. Some things can be done; whereas other things cannot.
Our brains record everything for future use. If a child witnessed the recorded events on television of terrorist attacks in New York they have recorded a visual memory, an auditory memory of the sounds recorded or the commentators voice, and the way it felt emotionally at the time. All the while the child is taking in the reactions and words and behaviors of others concerning the event. This includes peers, teachers, parents, and unknown people on the television.
Things that hurt, cause pain or distress, and are unthinkable acts are remembered through a stronger connection in the brain. This doesn’t mean it is more important than mother’s hugs or grandmother’s apple pie. Hurt and pain signal danger and this danger creates a state of arousal. The state of arousal is first felt as anxiety. Anxiety is a type of fear. Anxiety is most often defined as the fear of something that hasn’t yet happened. Or, the fear that something that has happened will happen again. Or, the fear that other like-kind things may indeed happen in due time.
I haven’t conducted a formal study on the subject, but I work with kids and have for many years. I feel there is a connection between anxiety and trauma. The trauma can be personal or general. It really doesn’t seem to matter. All children who were alive and in possession of declarative language skills at the time of 9/11 do remember being stunned, or afraid, and they remember losing their innocence. Loss of innocence is this context refers to being made to view the world as potentially unsafe.
Eventually all children or teens discover the world as unsafe. People do kill and they do harm one another. People are also kind, sympathetic, empathic, and helpful. We remember the bad stuff, because we are afraid of it. How do we help children to cope with a part of the world that likely won’t change during their lifetimes?
Whether the trauma is more societal or up close and personal we need to have discussions with children about the collective, which is their memory and their life. We need to be unafraid to bring up events, such as 9/11, Aunt Clara’s death, or when mother was hospitalized for a year. We want them to be able to talk about death, pain, and being afraid. Something positive happens when children are no longer afraid to talk about being anxious and frightened by people or the world.
Children need to talk about the bullies at school and they need to be able to talk to you, the parent, about what you say about that. The problem with terrorists, or bullies, or abusive family members rests outside the child. The problem, created by another, has now become the child’s problem. How do we help?
More on this in the next blog.
Take care and be well!
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD
Understanding Loss and Grief https://rowman.com/ISBN/978-1-4422-2274-8
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