Helping kids affected by economic uncertainty

January 12, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Home foreclosures, layoffs, financial stress ? how is it affecting your children and what can you do about it? Dr. Reggie Melrose, author of "Why Students Underachieve," helps you sort it out.

Psychologist Dr. Melrose's advice for supporting children traumatized by economic uncertainty:

1. Knowing that parents are stressed in these tough economic times, is it safe to say that our children are experiencing that stress as well? How? What might they be experiencing as children?

The best way I have come to understand how children experience the stress around them is this: As adults, when we get a gut feeling that something is wrong, it is something we sense and feel in the pit of our stomach, in the weakening of our knees or the tightening of our throat. It is a sensory experience. That is the oldest part of our brain - the animal brain - communicating to us through its language - sensations - in order to warn us that we may be in danger and may have to fight for our survival.

Children's animal brains are the most developed part of their brain. Their cognitive brain, the center for ration and reason and intellect, is still developing. So they actually live more in a sensory mode, picking up on everything going on around them. This is how the animal brain ensures survival. In milliseconds and constantly, it's an unconscious, automatic process, but the animal brain inside each child is scanning the environment, asking, "Am I okay? Will I be all right? Is my survival ensured? Am I safe?" If the animal brain experiences "YES" to all those questions, it calms down and makes available once again the cognitive brain so necessary for learning and adaptive behavior.

2. How do their elevated stress and/or anxiety affect them at school? At home with siblings, friends?

The brain mediates all of behavior, including school functioning so to really understand the answer to this question we have to understand how the brain works. Its primary purpose is survival, period. Until the brain knows survival is ensured, it cannot focus on anything else, least of all reading, writing, and arithmetic. When our children are afraid, the animal brain fires at full speed and overrides the cognitive brain needed for school. Our stressed and anxious children cannot focus, concentrate, or be in the here and now to fully benefit from their education. They look like they're daydreaming. They're spacey or inattentive. They appear squirrely or fidgety, like they have ants in their pants. With siblings and friends, they may seem irritable, pushy, or aggressive because they sense they're in danger somehow - why else would they feel so jittery inside? "It must be because you're threatening me."

3. Can children actually become traumatized by what's going on around them? How will we know if our child has been traumatized?

Something like economic stress and uncertainty is not likely to traumatize a child by itself. It is the kind of environment that is provoked by such instability that can be damaging, especially if a child is already vulnerable or sensitive because of previous experiences of trauma or a lack of available resources.

You will know if your child has been traumatized if he or she is having sleep disturbances: difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, restless sleep, nightmares, or night terrors. Traumatized children often have changes in their eating. They eat less or more. They become more easily upset, over minor triggers. They stay upset longer, are difficult to soothe and calm. They may develop fears they didn't have before. They can become clingy and dependent and may revert back to earlier behaviors they once had outgrown.

4. What can we do as parents and educators to help our nervous, scared, or traumatized children?

The most important thing we must do is recognize the problem for what it is, and not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by the ways in which these children are misunderstood. Too many are perceived on the part of parents, educators, doctors, and clinicians as ADHD, Bipolar, depressed, phobic, etc. and put on medications they should never be on. Traumatized children's responses and behaviors are normal given the abnormal events they have experienced.

What they need to heal are resources. The most important resources are safety, competence, and community. We provide safety through relationship, a warm and trusting bond with our children, and by settling our own nervous system first with our own resources so we can be a calm reassuring presence for our children. We create safety by being consistent and predictable, with routines, structure, rules, limits, boundaries, and sensible discipline. Teachers can post a Zero Tolerance Policy for racism and bullying, or The Rules and If-Then charts that state what can be expected if a rule is broken. Children need to know that when I am with this person in this place, this is how things work, 100 per cent of the time. This is what I can expect. Their activated nervous system is soothed by that tremendously.

Nervous, scared, or traumatized children need to feel good at something, that they have a contribution to make, that they have value and purpose. That knowing, that experience of "I can" inside of them is the antithesis to the physiology of trauma which leads to hopelessness and helplessness, a feeling of "I can't. It's too much. I have no control. What's the point?"

Nervous, scared, or traumatized children tend to want to isolate. Fear takes over. The world and everything in it, including people, are scary. We must be sure they continue to engage and be part of a safe and encouraging community. We know from research conducted after 9/11, for example, that the people who were able to heal and move on more quickly were those that became a part of something, an effort to restore the city, volunteering at Ground Zero, for example, rather than isolating at home watching re-runs of the towers going down.

5. What other available resources are there for our nervous, scared, or traumatized students?

If you visit Dr. Melrose's website at you will find books, audio sets, and websites that will help you find answers and help. "publications" page highlights textbook and parent guides in Spanish and English, as well as an activities book created for parents and educators to start healing their scared, nervous, or traumatized children right away.

About Dr. Reggie Melrose:
Licensed clinical psychologist and certified childhood trauma specialist, Dr. Regalena 'Reggie' Melrose is the author of the ground-breaking book, Why Students Underachieve: What Parents and Educators Can Do about It (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006). Reggie is an international speaker and California State University professor. She maintains a successful private practice as a trauma healing specialist for children, adolescents, and adults.

For more information, visit