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  • Writer's pictureDawn Spragg

Rethinking the Past

You have seen the posts, the articles, the quotes.

"Don't Live in the Past".

“The past is behind you".

"Don’t look in the rearview mirror-keep your eyes on the windshield".

We certainly don't want to “live in the past" or be stuck in painful memories or shame, but I promise you, the past lives in us. In his book, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, the author, Bessel A. van Kolk, explains clearly how trauma remains with us. Our thoughts, feelings, actions, and health are impacted by the experiences we have endured and participated in. It isn't as easy as moving on or not thinking about it.

In my work with young people at the Teen Action and Support Center, I certainly see how trauma begins to manifest in behavior, thought processes, and emotional management, even if the trauma happened years ago. Traumatic experiences begin a process of internalizing thoughts and feelings that stay with us for a very long time. It is very important that these early childhood experiences get processed, that the narrative is truthful, and that the emotions are acknowledged and regulated early in our life-preferably before adulthood.

COVID has promoted challenges to the mental health of so many people. I have seen many teenagers, as well as adults, who have traumatic pasts that include neglect, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, an incarcerated parent, or the loss of a parent or sibling, who have repressed and kept their stories and emotions locked away in the past- as they were told to do. However, the recent pandemic has managed to amplify the noise and pain of the past to a point of demanding people to finally process things from so very long ago. Teens and adults have both reported that without the distractions they previously used as coping strategies, the past has crept into the present with a vengeance. There are things about past traumas they never thought about, never really considered the impact of, and in some cases, NEVER told anyone. The isolation of the pandemic and other societal challenges have been responsible for releasing the pain of the past. While it may be true that we don't want to live in the pain and the shame of past mistakes, we cannot, and perhaps should not, deny such things actually took place. In some cases, making comments that things are in the past and no longer matter, may not be truthful and may be harmful.

The past matters.

The things that happened matter.

The past impacts and informs the present.

We can learn from the past, heal from it, and build healthy coping strategies in response to it. We don't have to live in it, but there is no reason to deny it. Let’s be sure our teenagers know the past can be revealed, validated, healed, and reconstructed for the journey ahead.

Some tips for helping teenagers who have experienced trauma:

  1. Validate the process. Allow teens to talk about what they remember and how they feel about it. Sometimes they just need to talk it out.

  2. Do not minimize their experiences: Avoid encouraging them to move on or get over it. Don’t attempt to compare their experiences to others who have been through worse. Remember their experiences are unique and may be different than yours or others in similar circumstances.

  3. Use question-asking to convey empathy and create a connection. Questions like, “How can I help?”, “What can I do to support you?”, “Is there anything you need from me?”

  4. Connect them to professional help. If teenagers are having intrusive negative thoughts or exhibiting harmful behaviors, seek out counselors who are trained to work with adolescents.

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