The events of August 2017 in Charlottesville were deeply upsetting within our community. While we do not know what the anniversary of these events will hold, we can expect that August 11-12, 2018, and the days afterwards may bring up difficult thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in both adults and children.

Children look to the adults in their lives to understand their world and how to respond, especially during upsetting and traumatic community events. Even children as young as 2 and 3 pick up on family, social, and community stress. Kids are very good at noticing emotional changes in their caregivers, but do not know how to make sense of what is happening on their own. Talking with and supporting your child can help them cope better during this time.

Possible Ways Youth May be Impacted:

  • Media exposure to the violent events of last year. Children are impacted by what they see, particularly when seeing familiar places as the setting for violence and offensive symbols.
  • Anniversary Reactions are common after traumatic experiences.
  • Possible Community Violence. The community is preparing for potential violence during anniversary events.
  • Reawakened community division, including hateful actions and words toward minority groups, can impact children of all ages.

Signs of Stress and Anxiety:

  • Fearfulness: Increased fear, clinginess, and difficulty separating from caregivers.
  • Somatic complaints: headaches, stomachaches, tiredness.
  • Sleep Difficulties: nightmares, trouble falling asleep, or not wanting to sleep in own bed
  • Regression: Acting younger than their age.
  • Changes in Play and Activities: Young children may act out their fears or what they have seen in their play. In older youth, changes in interest in activities or social connections.
  • Trauma History: Youth with a past trauma or exposure to violence, mental health concerns, or special needs may be more vulnerable to the impact of these events.
  • If your child’s behavioral and emotional changes do not begin to improve after a few weeks, you may want to talk with a professional such as a Pediatrician, School Counselor, Spiritual Leader, or Counselor.

Tips for Supporting Kids

  • Set aside time to talk: Find a time when you are calm and not distracted to talk with your child about what is going on. Tell the truth, avoid graphic details, use age-appropriate language, and speak in simple, clear ways.
  • Focus on Listening: Children need to be heard, even when you do not have all of the answers. Ask about their thoughts and feelings, and focus on responding to their questions or concerns.
  • Model positive coping: Monitor your own stress level so that you can be calm and in control around your child. Find healthy ways to cope and express your own emotions when your child is not nearby. If your child wants to talk when you are upset, schedule a later time to follow up when you are ready.
  • Limit Media Exposure: Minimize or restrict TV and social media exposure of graphic and violent content. Talk with your child about what they see, including how older youth engage in social media.
  • Plan positive activities: In difficult times, kids especially need to feel connected and to engage in comforting activities.
  • Reassure Safety: Emphasize ways that adults are keeping them safe, including Helpers in the community, without making unrealistic promises.
  • Maintain normal routines and rules: Consistency and structure provides stability and comfort for kids. Talk with your child ahead of time about schedule changes.
  • Positive Expression of Values and Emotions: Difficult times can provide rich opportunities for sharing your values with your kids. Older youth may benefit from helping activities that allow them to express their values. See back for healthy ways to express emotions.

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Meet Kayla

By the time Kayla came to ReadyKids, shortly after her fourth birthday, she had lived in three different foster homes, experienced chronic homelessness, substance abuse exposure, neglect and suspected sexual abuse.

At ReadyKids, Kayla met weekly with a trained trauma to heal from her past.

For Kayla, and the 1,273 kids in the ReadyKids service area like her who experienced abuse or neglect last year, the effects of trauma on their developing brains can have lifelong consequences.

The ReadyKids InsideOut program is the only program providing counseling for children who have experienced physical, sexual, emotional abuse, and neglect in the Charlottesville area at no charge to the victims’ families.

“We are fortunate to provide free long term counseling,” said Ashley Wood, Senior Trauma Counselor for InsideOut.  “We aren’t limited by Medicaid.”

There is no “magic wand” to heal children from trauma. Likewise, recovering from trauma isn’t a “one size fits all” treatment.

Much like a doctor studies a patient’s symptoms to narrow down a specific diagnosis and treatment, the InsideOut counselors hone their assessment skills to know what interventions will work for each child on their caseload.  But they don’t do it through asking questions or waiting for the child to tell them what happened, they use play.

“Play is a child’s primary way of communicating,” said Shannon Noe, Program Manager for Youth Counseling.  “By utilizing play therapy techniques, children are able to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a way that is natural and more comfortable … play allows them to have a tool to communicate without having to talk about it verbally.  Healing happens in these moments!”

Here are a few activities our counselors use to get a glimpse into a traumatized child’s inner life and begin healing.

Sherman the Raccoon PuppetReading “A Terrible Thing Happened”

This story tells about Sherman, a raccoon who saw something awful happen and he can’t forget it, no matter how hard he tries.  The book describes many of the behaviors and feelings children experience after traumatic events, like stomachaches or sleeplessness.  But also, “problem” behaviors like, “Sherman had to play more, run faster, and sing louder in order to forget the terrible thing he saw.”  Sherman goes to see Ms. Maple at school.  Ms. Maple listens. She helps Sherman understand what happened was not his fault.

After reading the book, InsideOut counselors will use a raccoon puppet who looks like Sherman to talk to a child.

“Sometimes I have kids who will only talk to Sherman, not to me,” said Wood.

The book ends by showing Sherman’s progress and reassuring children. “Nothing can change the terrible thing that Sherman saw, but now he does not feel so mean.  He is not so scared or worried.  His stomach does not hurt as much.  And the bad dreams hardly ever happen … I think you should know that.”

Putting feelings onto paper

You may have heard that right-brained people are creative, while left brained-people are logical.  These insights come from brain science, a burgeoning field offering us more insight on how traumatic events damage a child’s brain development.  Thanks to brain scientists, counselors now know that a child who has experienced trauma responds better to right brain therapies, therapies that use creativity and imagination – like art therapy or play therapy.

One form of art therapy many ReadyKids InsideOut counselors use to begin a session is a “Color Your Feelings” activity such as this one.  The child’s coloring is an assessment tool, and as a way to track progress through therapy.

“The color your feelings activity is a great way to track progress over time,” said Noe.  “It also provides us with a way to normalize having multiple feelings at any given time and to affirm a child who is willing to express emotions that are harder to contain.”

Imagining the future

Trauma and abuse can create a sense of hopelessness and unworthiness in children. Another activity ReadyKids InsideOut counselors do is give kids art materials and ask them to draw “A Bridge to the Future.”  In the drawing they must include what they hope for, what might be in their way, and what tools they will need to get there.

“In this picture, the shark is the girl’s trauma, threatening to keep her from the island of her hopes and dreams,” said Niti Patel, InsideOut Trauma Counselor.  “Her tools were her paddle, and if you look closely you’ll see that she put a number one on the boat, indicating that she will always put herself first.  She said the big sun showed that she had a lot of hope.”

When a child imagines itself as a force of hope, capable of changing his or her future, this increases resilience.  Building up resilience to help children overcome difficulties is the main goal of InsideOut.

Through grants and donations from generous donors like you, the ReadyKids InsideOut program has been able to reach more kids each year by adding more counselors to our staff.  But the work of healing trauma is deliberate and slow, and requires a genuine relationship.  Because of this, our waitlist is growing.

Help us to reach each child who needs us. Please consider a donation to ReadyKids to keep the work going.  We can’t do it without you!

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NBC News ranked the Aug. 11 and 12 rallies in Charlottesville as one of the top 10 news stories of 2017.  The Atlantic rated the photo of protesters being hit by a car on 4th street the top news photo of the year.  For those of us living in Charlottesville, 2017 was a tense and stressful year, particularly for our children.

Athena Gould, Executive Director of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of the Blue Ridge was moved to find ways to speak words of hope to Charlottesville’s children.  From this was born that #DearYoungPerson campaign.  Recently, ReadyKids was a recipient of dozens of #DearYoungPerson postcards.  They came from Louisiana, New York, Texas, Illinois, Mississippi, Florida and even as far away as Norway.  Each one had touching words of inspiration and light.  These postcards now hang in the ReadyKids waiting room where children in the Inside Out program, who have experienced trauma, can read them.

If you also need a pick-me-up, take some time to read what beautiful people all around the country took the time to say to hurting kids.  It’ll make you believe the world is a good place again.

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