ATLANTIC CITY — How many people would say something if they saw a harsh interaction between a parent and child at a grocery store, at a park or elsewhere? How many people would recognize distress in a child or adult related to something that happened in childhood?
More than two-thirds of children report experiencing at least one traumatic event by age 16, studies show, and health experts, caregivers, teachers and others gathered for a workshop Wednesday to find how best to help both children and their parents cope and avoid trauma.
“Trauma can be neglect or abuse, and it can also be something like a death in the family or an injury,” said Dr. Magna Dias, medical director of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Care Network at AtlantiCare.
“They have the potential to cause long-term emotional, physical and psychological impacts,” Dias said.
Dias made opening remarks to a crowd of 200 physicians, nurses, medical staff, social workers, counselors, teachers, youth organizers and others who attended CHOP and AtlantiCare’s workshop, “Working with Children: The Importance of Understanding Trauma.”
Experts convened and discussed strategies and services that could help defuse situations between parents and children, provide opportunities for children to talk and work through trauma and find ways to break cycles of adverse childhood experiences within families.
Trauma can stem from many situations, including abuse, violence, witnessing violence, bullying, natural disasters or terrorism, sudden loss of a loved one, refugee experience, military family-related stressors, neglect, accidents or life-threatening illnesses.
Marcy Witherspoon, licensed social worker at the Health Federation of Philadelphia, said children who experienced trauma even as infants can struggle in the following years and beyond if there is no treatment.
She also said two different children who experience the same traumatic event may be affected differently.
“There are these series of events that we have no internal coping mechanisms for,” Witherspoon said. “And we can’t judge on how someone responds to that trauma, because one person might be fine afterward and another may not.”
Experts said trauma not only affects the child who experienced it, but also their families, schools and communities.
Research from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University shows adverse childhood events can result in toxic stress, which damages a developing brain and can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior and physical and mental health.
Carol Murray, training manager for CHOP’s Violence Prevention Initiative, and Kristen Kohser, licensed social worker at CHOP, talked about how bystanders can use the One Kind Word program to step in to help parents and children struggling in public in positive and supportive ways.
“It’s everyone’s job. There are children out there counting on adults to protect them,” Kohser said. “It takes a village mentality.”
Another solutions part of the program involved Allie Nunzi, founder of Grace and Glory Yoga, teaching the room about how yoga can be used to develop resilience in children and families affected by trauma.
She and Kathy Whitmore, co-founder of the Leadership Studio, have worked with groups in Atlantic City and South Jersey. They demonstrated basic yoga poses, breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques that can be used with youth.
“Yoga teaches us that our bodies are innately intelligent and is communicating with us all the time,” Nunzi said. “We want people to get to a place where they are able to recognize the traumas or sensitivities in themselves.”