Kids are suffering from toxic stress. Here’s some advice on how we can help them heal

Stress and upheaval are harmful at any time, but the pandemic has forced many families on a seemingly never-ending roller coaster ride. Families and caregivers are concerned about what this time of great instability means for their children, so we turned to psychologist Jennifer Vargas Pemberton, who has worked with children and adolescents for decades, for some answers.

Pemberton is Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Counseling in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Cal State Northridge and the faculty liaison for Strength United, the CSUN charter center that provides community and campus trauma services. She also has private practice and is the Training Director and Crisis Program Manager at the Child & Family Guidance Center offices on Balboa Boulevard in Northridge.

Overall, Pemberton said she believes families, schools and our communities should take a “trauma-informed” approach, meaning that an understanding of traumatic experiences can impact our children’s overall well-being.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

They have worked with suicidal children and adolescents, specializing in community health, treating child abuse and trauma, and Latino mental health issues. What brought you down this path?

I’m a first generation Latina. My family emigrated from Costa Rica. My sister and I are the only ones born here and our first language was Spanish. That’s part of what motivated me to get involved in the Latino community – to provide services that are needed for an underserved community.

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I earned my bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA, which sparked my interest in mental health. I went to USC to do a Masters in Marriage and Family Counseling and a PhD in Counseling Psychology.

Field work and internships were part of my PhD journey and the first was the JADE (Juvenile Assistance Diversion Effort) project in South Gate. This program was designed for arrested youth, and many of the clients took risks. Instead of smuggling them through the prison system, they would go through this program.

My next internship was at the Child and Family Guidance Center [in Northridge] where i work now I was there for field work. I started in trauma knowing it was the right thing for me. … I’ve been doing this for 25, 30 years and when you work with trauma you see there are other issues like PTSD and depression and anxiety and substance abuse.

Members of the medical community sometimes refer to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) scores when evaluating children. Can you please explain?

Emperor [and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] conducted this study on negative childhood experiences. There are 10 different categories [of adverse experiences]and the higher the score, the more it is associated with negative effects on physical and mental health.

Before that, there was no connection with trauma and health.

Can you talk about children and toxic stress?

Toxic stress is the prolonged experience of [something] detrimental, such as abuse or neglect. Being exposed to parents who are drug addicts or mentally ill. Chronic exposure to traumatic experiences.

I take a trauma-informed approach. When people think of trauma, most of them think of feelings and emotions like sadness and depression. … A trauma-informed approach is much more holistic. [What’s] the impact [of trauma] on the brain? On [children’s] emotional development and regulation? [What’s] the impact on their cognition… on their physiological state? on their behavior? On her self-esteem?

Think about the pandemic. If we had said to each other in 2018, “Imagine there’s a virus out there. Imagine there are millions of dead. Imagine the whole world stands still and everyone has to stay indoors 24 hours a day. Hospitals are overwhelmed and overwhelmed.”

One might think one is describing a film.

But that’s what happened to us. The trauma we have experienced – especially for children – is that our basic physiological safety has been eroded. There were all these sudden deaths in families. Many children have lost their parents and grandparents and their extended family.

For underserved communities, the stay-at-home order was slightly different. If you live with multiple families in a very closed space – maybe a one-bedroom apartment – if you already had anxiety or depression, that fed it. So during the pandemic, we saw more depression, anxiety, and stress.

If you experienced domestic violence at home, this order meant you stay home, you were home with a perpetrator and there was no escape… This was very frightening for many families.

How do children deal with grief?

It can be very confusing for children.

When you support someone during the healing process, you want to start by validating and normalizing their feelings, and then help them process the feelings associated with the loss. Talk about the positive memories and the redefinition of relationships.

Learning how to regulate yourself emotionally is incredibly helpful, whether it’s dealing with grief or any of the other mental health issues.

How can children be heard if they don’t have the vocabulary necessary to engage with their own mental health?

Your behavior speaks louder than words. Their behavior is how children communicate about what is going on with them. she [might] withdraw or be quiet, or be aggressive and hit someone. When they are teenagers, they [might] run away or abuse drugs or cut yourself.

When agencies take a trauma-informed approach, they look at the person holistically, which includes their experiences and not just the symptoms.

If you take a trauma-informed approach to school, if you have kids who don’t do their homework or are aggressive, you won’t look at that kid and say, “That’s a lazy kid.” Instead, you [ask] “What’s the matter with this kid?”

If a doctor can understand that this trauma is there, they will connect the children to the appropriate mental health service.

Do you think the rate and magnitude of trauma is decreasing?

To a certain extent – absolutely. COVID is not gone but we do not have a stay home order and the kids are going back to school and being socialized and going outside. We’re moving forward.

Are we fully healed and over? Absolutely not.

At times, it seems as if our public health system is unable to help everyone who has suffered trauma and mental pain during the pandemic. What Miscellaneous are resources available to children and families in marginalized communities?

The Department of Mental Health has many commissioned agencies throughout the county. There are also centers that are not part of the department. There are centers that offer case management therapy, psychological hotline assessments, and psychiatric medication. Schools have therapists on campus.

There are grief centers like Our House Grief Support Center. Congregational churches and parks and recreation centers in a community [can help]. When they can bring children together in a safe space, they socialize and connect with their peers.

There are amazing things on YouTube like yoga and teaching kids to play guitar – so many things that can affect kids when it comes to music and art.

When we bring children to heal, we [need to] pursuing a holistic approach with movement, art, sleep hygiene – that’s enormous. Also alkaline diet. There are some apps that I give to my clients and my students. …. Mindfulness Coach, PTSD Coach, Free Apps Made by Government.

Are you hopeful of finding more solutions to move forward, especially for kids?

We know that as human beings we have this capacity for resilience and healing, and we need to support each other within that framework. We know some of the strategies we can use in relation to coping. We can respond culturally. I’m hopeful…otherwise I couldn’t be in this realm.
We see success stories. I firmly believe in recovery and healing.

What can we as a culture… as a society… as a community… do to support our children? How can we help them heal?

Being educated and compassionate about trauma as a community is a step forward from a critical, judgmental, “You should do better.”

The reduction in shame and stigma surrounding mental health is tremendous. When someone goes to the doctor, there is no shame. When someone goes to a therapist and gets medication, there is a culture of shame. … We’re starting to move in the direction of trying to normalize mental health.

We all need support and healing, and there are different ways to get it. [We can] Be stronger, believe in our own strength… show grace to one another. Kids are suffering from toxic stress. Here’s some advice on how we can help them heal

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