By Kathleen McKee, MS, MSW (in progress)
All kids have tough things that happen in their lives. Maybe they get pushed down on the playground and hurt their knee. Maybe worse, they are in a scary car accident or their sibling died.
Dr. Dan Siegel is an expert in brain development and in how to support children to help them make sense of events, emotions and their developing brains. He explains that they have an “upstairs brain” that can think things through and a “downstairs brain” that is about uncontrolled reactions. They also have a “right brain” (emotions and sensations) and a “left brain” (awareness of facts, events and use of language).
As caregivers, one of our jobs is to support children to help them INTEGRATE these brain parts which may be interacting chaotically. You can help them create more harmonious, regulated experiences as they grow. This is how we can help avoid traumatization when scary things happen!
An example that Dan Siegel gives in his seminal work, The Whole Brain Child, is that of Marco, age 2, who was in a car accident with his baby sitter, Sophia. Someone called 911 and the babysitter was taken away in an ambulance. Over the course of several weeks, Marco would say, “Eeah, woo woo.” His mother knew he was remembering how Sophia (Eeah) was taken away in the ambulance (woo woo). Supporting her son to integrate the memories and the experience of the traumatic event, she held him in that space for a while with some mirroring and acknowledgement by describing the experience and naming the likely feelings. She supported him to retell the story!
“Yes, you and Sophia were in a car accident, weren’t you? That was scary, wasn’t it? The car hit another car, and there was smoke.”
He held out his arms and started shaking them. “Yes, Sophia had a seizure, her body was reacting to being in the car that crashed into another car. You might have felt confused about why she was doing that.”
“Eaa woo woo” he said. “Yes, you heard the siren of the ambulance that came to help her and take her to doctors at the hospital. That was scary too, huh, seeing Sophia be taken away?”
“And remember when we went to see her yesterday? She is getting better, isn’t she?”
She did not try to distract, advise, or encourage him to change his feelings. Instead, she helped him retell the story with empathy and suggested words. This is how we can support our children to learn about what is happening to them inside and to not be traumatized by life’s tough events.
And if they are a little older, we can ask open-ended questions if it will support them to be with the experience and reassure them you are fully accepting of it all and ready to stay with them in it. Just receiving their truth of what happened, and supporting them to tell the story, is so powerful in healing their hearts and nervous systems.
Integrating scary things through storytelling is one technique that we will talk about in the upcoming 4-part online course Connecting with Children Ages 2-12: A Communication Class for Parents offered by Kathleen McKee. It will be all four Thursdays in April from 6:15-7:30pm. Please click here to learn more.
Using the work of Dan Siegel, we will talk about how parts of the brain of a young person are not integrated yet. We will do some exploring of the world of the child in context of their neurological development and how to respond in support of harmonious brain development.
Every class will include information about your child’s nervous system, skill-building, playing with real-life situations, handouts to use at home, and some assigned activities between classes.