went the policeman’s gun
his victim dropped legs akimbo
arms askew, eyes glossed over
blood pooled at his side
still, i remember how it poured
i sat alone
transfixed on my neighbor’s stoop
barbie in hand and
mid-decision was she in the kitchen
no longer could i concentrate
instinctively i knew it was time to
put the dolls away
that moment was the moment
the boy no more
than 16, he and i forever paired
i can still hear the shots
smell the smell of burning flesh
fresh gunshot and
the sweat of those cops
chasing that boy through
my neighbor’s yard
she’s an eyewitness, they said
we have to interview her
did not budge
i thought it was ketchup
i told her
i thought it was ketchup
it was so red, i repeated
but i knew it wasn’t
ketchup because it spilled
what answers did
they expect from a 5 year old
especially when they
could not answer
what had he done
to deserve so severe
Trauma Response in Children
When I was 5, I witnessed a police shooting. A teenager ran through my friend’s backyard pursued by police.
I don’t remember the warning shot. I do remember the gun fire and the way he dropped from mid run to full collapse in her driveway.
I was traumatized.
What was worth this boy’s life?
What could he possibly have stolen that was more valuable than he?
Those questions were never answered. I have no idea what he stole or why the police were so adamant about catching him.
I only know that he was shot and that he dropped dead still in my neighbor’s driveway while I sat on her stoop playing with our Barbie dolls.
The whole night I kept repeating, “I thought it was ketchup.” I know now that I was in shock.
My mother did everything right. She shielded me from the onslaught of questions from other adults who didn’t know any better. She fed me and made sure that I had water to drink. She also put me to bed after filling me up with love and heart-felt prayers.
When I asked questions she couldn’t answer she didn’t pretend. Too often adults pretend that they know what’s going on when in reality they have no clue. She was honest.
When the nightmares showed up, she was there.
Eventually, the nightmares subsided. But whenever a question popped into my head about the incident mama would listen. She never said to me, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
When a child is traumatized, often adults can’t handle the trauma themselves. As a result of not being able to address their own trauma response, many adults will just shut down.
When they shut down, they cannot properly respond to the trauma response in the children in their care. In my work as a social worker, I see it everyday.
Kids with unresolved trauma struggle with attentiveness, emotional regulation, impulse management, and hypervigiliance.
Trauma Response is Not Attention Deficit Disorder
Because inattentiveness, poor impulse management, and hyperactivity are also cornerstone symptoms for Attention Deficit Disorder, many children navigating trauma are diagnosed with A.D.D. inappropriately.
It takes a skilled clinician time to be able to distinguish the difference. Parents and other caregivers wanting to help their child will often accept the diagnosis without question.
Unfortunately, when the prescriptions for A.D.D. don’t work to alleviate or eliminate the symptoms adults can fall into a pattern of victim blaming that will exacerbate the symptoms further.
Kids then begin to blame themselves. They, who have been traumatized, then fall deep into a self-hate syndrome where they actually believe that something is wrong with them.
I mean first this bad, sad, and scary thing happens. Then they start having all these problems with concentrating, getting angry about nothing, crying way too much, and feeling jumpy. And then when they go to get help, the help they get doesn’t work.
Obviously, something must be wrong with them.
When Bad, Sad, Scary Things Happen
When bad, sad, scary things happen to children, it’s imperative that the adults in their lives acknowledge the bad, sad, and scary thing.
Kids need to know that we know that what happened wasn’t okay. They also need to know that we don’t believe that what happened was their fault.
Here’s the really, Really, REALLY important part…grown ups have to keep telling kids that no matter what it was that happened…it wasn’t the kid’s fault. And keep telling them…and keep telling them…and keep telling them.
Seeking professional help is important. Especially if the nightmares and other trauma symptoms last for longer than 90 days.
It’s also important for the grown ups caring for kids to be active participants in the help that is sought. Too often, grown ups will drop kids off for therapy like they drop kids off for soccer practice.
It’s not the same thing.
Therapy isn’t an extra-curricular activity.
When parents or other caregivers are involved in the trauma focused treatment, therapy goes better. Misdiagnosis happen less often. And when it does happen, it’s more easily corrected.
As For Me
I still think about the boy who was shot in my neighbor’s driveway. It doesn’t matter that the incident was 41 years ago. It happened and remains fresh in my memory.
It doesn’t haunt me, though. I’m not sure what happened to the boy. I know that he didn’t die that day. I also don’t know what happened to cop that shot him. I know that he wasn’t fired.
I know that my ability to recover from that event, rest solely in the care my mother gave me afterward. Because she was nurturing, supportive, and available I was able to heal so that I could resolve the trauma response in me quickly.
My mother is amazing. Without her love and support that day and every day since, I don’t know that I would be on this voyage toward FearFree Living.
Least of all inviting you along for the ride.
FYI: April is National Poetry Month.