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Medical trauma is described as a psychological and physiological response to pain, injury, serious illness, medical procedures and frightening treatment experiences (ISTSS, 2021).
We like to believe trauma ends right where it begins, but this is simply not the case. The symptoms can continue over time. Our brain has logged the experience as a possible threat. It has taken a snapshot of perceived threats using all, or some, of our five senses. For instance, if a family member had a particular scent on at the time the traumatic experience occurred, you may later notice that this scent is still triggering for you. You may notice your heart racing, perceived doom, avoidance, stomachache or even a desire to fight or flee (and so many other physical and mental symptoms I did not list).
Let’s apply medical trauma to a real-life situation.
My son attends weekly treatment at the hospital. He was initially doing well with the treatment, which includes the insertion of a needle. However, during one week of treatment, his blood began to pool back into the tube and the nurses began to closely monitor his blood pressure. A particular person on his treatment team appeared alarmed when he appeared to “zone out.” Luckily, at the end of the day, everything was fine (regarding his physical health). However, the following week, my son began to avoid and then fight! He attempted to avoid going to treatment by taking longer than usual to get ready in the morning and by prolonging the intake process. Once the nurses arrived to clean his hand, he began to fight. It got to a point to where I was asked to hold him while the nurses insert the needle. This experience was traumatic for my son (and myself). This behavior began to carry over to dental cleanings and other medical appointments.
I felt as if I knew exactly what was happening and I had a long conversation with the Child Life Specialist about what I perceived. The Specialist was receptive and affirming throughout the conversation. The staff began to give control back to my son. He is no longer perceiving this experience as a threat and his trauma responses are not as prevalent as they were before.
This process was not only traumatic for my son, but also for me and his father. We both noticed that we were unable to schedule anything after treatment, as we were simply exhausted. Parents may experience a significant amount of stress resulting in feelings of sadness, guilt and feeling physically fatigued. You may feel as if you’re engaging in a shared trauma experience with your child. I will continue to tell you that this is normal, and you’re not alone in how you feel. As a parent, we automatically want to “fix” the situation. However, we also must recognize that our children are their own entity, we can’t control how they feel, or even perceive the world around them, but we can take some measures to help them through this difficult time.
1) EDUCATE – Parents! We must educate ourselves on our children’s medical diagnosis, treatments AND subjects like this, regarding medical trauma, or mental health in general. Ask your child’s medical team about “trauma-informed care” and consider their response to this question. Are they acknowledging that your child may be responding in such a manner because of possible medical trauma? Have them tell you, and show you, what their plan is to reduce these symptoms.
2) YOU HAVE A VOICE! Advocate - If you are aware of ways to reduce the trauma response, tell the medical team and have them implement this in their treatment plan. Talk to your child to get a better understanding of their needs. I also understand that in some cases, children are nonverbal, and you are their only voice. They may not have the words to describe what they are feeling, so pay close attention to possible triggers that may occur before a noticeable fight, flight or freeze response. Provide feedback to the medical treatment team and make sure they are honoring this feedback through noticeable changes in how they interact with your child. I know it can be hard and you may feel like this is a medical professional, “I have no right to tell them how to do their job,” but this is YOUR CHILD, and you are the expert in their life. Remember this when you feel some fear in discussing your child’s treatment with medical staff. You may receive pushback from some, but then there are others that have tried all they learned and will appreciate the feedback from the parents and guardians of the child.
3) TRAUMA-INFORMED THERAPY – Parents and children may benefit from talking with a trauma-informed therapist regarding their experience. Talk with the medical team about supports within the hospital (i.e., specialists, support groups, etc.).
4) SELF-CARE – This will always be at the top of the list for parents. If you are able get a few moments in for self-care, please do so. The last thing your child needs is for you to burnout and have nothing left to give. Take a break, clear your schedule on treatment days, and try not feel guilty if you are not mentally and physically available on those difficult days.
5) SOCIAL SUPPORT FOR PARENTS AND CHILDREN – Check with your child’s school regarding additional community supports. Believe it or not, the school’s social worker, or 504 coordinators, are an excellent resource for finding mentors and other supports within your community.
International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. (2021). Medical
Trauma. https://istss.org/public resources/friday-fast-facts/fast-facts-medical-trauma.