Fear, anxiety, and trauma response. How you can support a child who is having an emotional meltdown.
“Trauma isn’t what happens to you, trauma is what happens inside you.”-Dr. Gabor Mate
We are at a stop sign on a little backroad when my nine year old flings her seat belt off and throws the car door open with an ear-bending squeal. I freak out too and yell “Close the door, that’s dangerous!” which only inflames the situation. “NO!” she yells looking down at something as she leaps from the stopped car. Now we are both upset as I put my flashers and emergency brake on, leaping from the car myself and demand, “What the hell happened?”
“A spider! A spider is in there and its trying to kill me!”
“Seriously?!? A spider?!?” I stammer indignantly.
“You don’t knoooooow MOM! It’s going to kill me!”
I look at her. Her whole body is shaking and her eyes are filled with fear. Finally, I get the intensity she is feeling and calm myself down:
“OK, I think it jumped out of the car when you opened the door, you can get back in now.” I lie with an unnaturally calm tone.
“MOOOOOM, I’m not stupid, no it didn’t and I’m not getting back in THAT car until you GET IT!”
My un-naturally calm voice now turns to an ultra-spiritually fake voice as I muster “OKaaay, I. Will. Get. The. Spider.” To which her whole body goes from rigid to semi-relaxed, she stops shaking and I see tears well in her eyes.
My empathy and compassion finally kick in and I offer “Wow, spiders are really scary for you. I didn’t know.” A cascade of my daughter’s tears flow now as she sobs: “I tried to TELL you.”
Ultimately nobody died. I relocated the killer garden variety spider from the car to a roadside plant. My daughter got back in the car. I figured out she had a fear that had become a phobia.
After the killer spider incident, I began to honor the flight system that kicks in for my daughter, not as an overreaction, but as a deeper need to be heard and honored for what is real for her. We worked through the phobia together.
My daughter is now almost 18 and just last week came to me and said, in the same ultra-spiritual calm as mine 9 years earlier: “Mom, I want you to know that last night when you were already asleep, there was a spider in my room and I didn’t wake you up. I caught it myself and put it outside.”
The first order of business in human development is safety. Without safety at the neurological level and at the conscious level, learning halts. Regardless of how rational or irrational a response may seem to us, to the child, it is VERY real. Children need to know they are safe, which is the caregivers’ number one primary. Meeting safety needs is the most important step towards growth and learning.
Research tells us that a trauma response to life’s little insults is built not so much by the event that happens, but by how it is responded to.
Dr. Gabor Mate tells us that “Trauma is when you are lonely to your pain and sadness and can’t process it…”
Whether you are a family member, a teacher or a mentor, what is needed to mitigate a trauma response is to “help them experience [loss or fear] by a nurturing adult so the young person learns that they can handle it and that there is support in this world.”
In moments when fear, even seemingly unreasonable fear, hijacks a kids behavior they want two specific things. They want to feel that:
- You’ve Got This!
- You believe in them that “They’ve got this!”
See a two and a half minute clip of Dr. Mate talking about children and trauma.