So last week, when my daughter was telling me the story about her friends at the local McDonald’s restaurant and the creepy predator guy (last week’s post), it reminded me of the many times when my children have been faced with some type of predator stress and of course, this time I was thankful it was not one my kids.
But, it made me wonder how my children would’ve handled the situation. Both of my children are very active and talented in the performing arts and both have made it very clear for years about their plans to live in New York (or maybe, London’s West End) and Los Angeles, the three places on Earth where they feel they can best go after their dreams; one wants to be a Broadway star and the other wants to be a pop star. I guess somewhere in the past 16 years, my casual comments, such as “Go big or go home!” have been taken quite literally, much to my chagrin.
Of course, I want my children to succeed, go after their dreams and to be healthy, happy, self-motivated and successful in whatever they choose to do, but it would be nice if they could find a way to do that a little closer to home… pity party over!
The problem is that living in these major urban centers brings a fair amount of difficulty when it comes to personal safety as my children have been raised in a small rural community in the mountains. Even though they were born in a city, we left for greener pastures when they were preschoolers and we have been tucked away in a small-town for more than 10 years. Here, kids walk alone at night time at extremely young ages and houses and cars are almost never locked.
So, since my children have always talked about living out their big dreams in those proverbial “big scary places”, I want them to be prepared for the dangers they might face in their futures and I took several steps to increase their odds of avoiding an unfortunate incident. First, I went to great lengths to teach them about personal safety and how to analyze risk and I helped them develop good personal risk management practices.
I even tried to teach them self defense a couple of times but neither one was interested to any great degree in taking martial arts until they watched the movie Miss Congeniality with Sandra Bullock. The acronym S.I.N.G. representing the four vulnerable spots on the male body (solar plexus, instep, nose, groin) seemed to resonate with my girls, I guess, since they are both singers.
But regardless of how good they are at personal risk management, the first prong of my 3-prong strategy, I realized very quickly that it just wasn’t going to be enough in terms of protecting my children’s mental health, which is one of my ultimate goals. Once kids (or adults) have experiences that invoke feelings of fear, self-esteem and confidence can begin to wane and this can lead to poor decision making and a vicious cycle of victimization can begin.
That was when I added the second part of my formula – respond. And this part stems from the notion that bad things will happen and there is no point in pretending the world is not a scary place. However, rather than teach them to be afraid of the world, I chose to let my kids be kids and instead, I amended my job description as a parent to helping them create strong systems for dealing with the physiological reactions that happen in the human body when bad things happen and when they feel scared.
In case you didn’t know, the human stress response system is designed to achieve survival, pure and simple. It will do whatever it needs to do to save your life. And it has more power to make changes in the human body in short order than the impact a pair of beavers can have on a forest and the surrounding ecosystem in less than a year.
And, each and every time your children feel fear of any kind, regardless of whether it is an online incident, watching a scary movie or an actual in person threat, such as bullying, sexual harassment or some type of physical or sexual assault, the stress response system reacts exactly the same way and begins the process of launching a cascade stress response that has the power to take over the entire body. So, even if your kids seem to be tough enough to “handle it”, just know that most of the time, the option to be brave or not has long been removed from their control by their own biological systems.
Left unattended, these biological changes leave the inside of the human body looking like a World War II battlefield after the dust has settled, except for the fact that the snipers (free radicals) are still out there and they never run out of ammunition. In fact, the repressed emotion caused by just one bullying incident left unattended can cause the production of disease-causing free radicals for decades to come. For this reason, it is absolutely critical to help children release repressed emotion as it happens so it does not have the chance to accumulate over time and become stored in the central nervous system.
For me, the most important thing that I can do is help them turn off the Cortisol (stress hormone) tap that is flooding their little bodies after facing predatory stress or any kind of stress, actually. I need to make sure the memories of the experience are processed in a realistic way as opposed to in a fantastical way; I need to make sure that night terrors are dealt with; I need to make sure the child feels safe when they are not in my presence; I need to make sure my children don’t believe the incident was their fault; and I need to make sure the child has the means to release the anger, fear, sadness, guilt, shame, blame, regret and embarrassment that usually accompany these incidences.
Thankfully, there are a whole host of strategies, way beyond just talk therapy and counseling, that can be used to ensure that a seemingly innocuous experience or even a more serious experience does not cause significant, long-term brain damage.
Did you know that many people believe predatory or bullying stress experiences do not have a long-term impact on children? Maybe you are one of the people who believe that children will eventually grow out of it, but recent medical imaging technology such as MRI scans have proven that significant brain damage can be done after just one traumatic incident and can have lasting effects for years to come. In other words, children do not grow out of it and that is the last thing I want for my girls.
Finally, the third prong of my three pronged strategy is repair. Now, thankfully, and to the best of my knowledge, my own children have not had a major traumatic incident in their lives; however, that does not mean it will never happen in their lifetime. To that end, I want to give my children the knowledge and tools to be able to repair brain damage after it has happened; I want to make sure they can heal the myelin sheaths in their brains; I want to make sure they have the tools to be able to reduce brain inflammation that may occur and I want to make sure they have the skills to be able to control the amygdalae organs in their brains and train or retrain their pre-frontal cortex if need be. In fact, I have gone to great lengths to educate myself about the human brain with the aim of helping my own children and as many other kids as possible.
And all parents can do it! There are many products on the market and there are many effective stress management strategies available to try out. Finally, there is the basic concept of raising kids to be stress hardy and resilient, which creates a kind of confidence and self-esteem that allows a person to recognize their right to total mental health at all times. You deserve it and so do your kids.