Be Alert to Long-Term Aftereffects of Trauma

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When trauma interrupts the lives of young people, the aftereffects may last longer than we assume or imagine. Further, the impact may show up in a surprising variety of aspects of students’ lives, including areas that we may not immediately connect with the cause.

Obviously, we try to protect students from trauma, whether naturally occurring such as a devastating storm, or resulting from intentional human actions or accidental circumstances. We do what we can to prevent traumatic events from ever occurring. When prevention is not enough, we try to deal with students’ immediate needs, fears, and concerns and restore familiar structures and routines as soon as practical.

Efforts to return students’ lives to normalcy are important steps in helping students recover. Answering their questions and reassuring their fears can help them refocus on daily life and restore a sense of structure and predictability. However, researchers and experts advise that the effects of trauma can last longer than we might assume; they can have negative impacts on students’ emotional and psychological health well after the incident has passed and is no longer a topic of news and conversation. The disruption in living circumstances, loss of loved ones, and the memory of what students witnessed and experienced can stay with students even though they may not appear stuck or overly preoccupied by the event.

There are behavioral signs and symptoms we often can observe when students are continuing to suffer trauma’s aftereffects. Among the emotional signs for which we can watch are seemingly unprovoked or disproportionate anger in response to events and the actions of others. We may see signs of depression such as lack of motivation and ability to focus. Students may express higher levels of anxiety related to tasks and challenges, such as tests. We also may observe students becoming more isolated and reluctant to form and sustain relationships with others.

Clearly, students may experience any of these symptoms without any relationship to long-term distress resulting from trauma, so we need to be thoughtful and careful not to overreact. The good news is that researchers have found that when these symptoms are not severe, we can approach students in much the same way we would under most circumstances. We can share what we are observing, invite students to share what they are feeling, offer our support, and, if asked, share strategies to counter and address what they are experiencing.

However, the potential connection between these behaviors and past trauma warrants our ongoing attention. If the symptoms persist, are intense, or interfere with a student’s ability to function and engage fully in life, consider referring the student to professionals who may be able to diagnose and provide formal treatment and support. Left unaddressed, the lingering effects of trauma can inhibit students’ ability to learn, enjoy life, and find success.

Young people can appear to put traumatic experiences behind them quickly and move on with their lives. Often, what we see is accurate and students are returning to normal. However, we need to be conscious of the possibility that what they have experienced is still having an impact in less obvious but still harmful ways.

 

For more information:
Dye, H. (2018). The impact and long-term effects of childhood trauma. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 28(3), 381-392. doi: 10.1080/10911359.2018.1435328
The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. https://moyerfoundation.org/resources/national-center-for-school-crisis-and-bereavement/

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