The importance of helping children process traumatic events

“Reliving trauma is highly overrated.”

My mentor in narrative therapy, Susan Saltzburg, Ph.D., said that to me during an internship in my second year of graduate school, but the words stick with me in sessions every day. Often, we don't deal with traumatic memories because it feels safer to bury them deep inside, as if ignoring the pain helps it go away. But that's not healthy. When we hold in feelings, they just come out another way—as anger, questionable behaviors, self-harm, physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach issues, and countless other ways.

But how do we deal with those feelings when repeatedly reliving them is “overrated”?

It helps when we find meaning in our suffering. That's not my phrase, by the way. It's from a book by Viktor Frankl called “Man's Search for Meaning.” Frankl writes about his quest to find meaning in his own suffering in a German concentration camp during World War II. It's not enough just to talk about our trauma; we need to make some sense of it so our brains can process the experiences in a healthy way. (Often, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are a reminder from your unconscious mind that you still need to do this.)

This deserves a word of caution, though. We don't want to minimize the experience or tell ourselves that we're weak for feeling pain. We're simply choosing to grow stronger from the experience.

A good recent example comes from the students in Parkland, Florida, who reacted to a school shooting by taking on gun laws and the NRA. Whether you agreed with them or not, the students channeled their emotions and pain into trying to prevent future shootings. They were desperate to find some meaning, some purpose, in their trauma.

Making sense of suffering doesn't always require that level of public action. Frankl wrote about helping others in the camp deal with their own pain, and he wrote vividly about his transcendent moment when he witnessed a sunrise that openly contradicted the pain and despair of the camp.

Not all trauma happens on a large, dramatic scale. For children, the pain of parents breaking up or not making the school team or being alone on prom night are just as legitimate.

Frankl wrote, “No matter how much gas you have, it will spread to fill the room.” Your pain is as real for you as anyone else's is to them. For example, you may not experience the chronic pain of someone with a back injury, but your pain is still valid when you stub your toe in the middle of the night. (I hate that.)

It's easy to feel isolated when you're in pain. If you or your child feels overwhelmed, talk therapy can really help. But the goal of the therapy shouldn't be to make you relive the trauma again and again; the goal should be to help you process the thoughts and feelings so you can make sense of what happened and eventually move on.

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.