Stress and turmoil are detrimental at any time, but the pandemic has forced many families on a seemingly endless rollercoaster ride. Families and caregivers worry about what This period of great instability means for their children, so we turned to psychologist Jennifer Vargas Pemberton, who has worked with children and teens for decades, for some answers.
Pemberton is associate professor of educational psychology and counseling in the California Northridge Marriage and Family Therapy Program and faculty liaison for Strength United, a charter CSUN center that provides trauma services to the community and on campus. In addition, she has a private practice and is the Director of Training and Director of the Crisis Program at the Balboa Boulevard offices of the Child and Family Guidance Center in Northridge.
Overall, Pemberton said she believes that families, schools, and our communities should adopt a “trauma-informed” approach, which means that understanding traumatic experiences can affect our children’s overall well-being.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You work with suicidal children and adolescents and specialize in community health, child abuse and trauma treatment, and Latin mental health issues. What led you down this path?
I am a first generation Latina. My family immigrated from Costa Rica. My sister and I were born here, and our first language was Spanish. This is part of what drove me to get involved in the Latino community – to provide needed services to an underserved community.
I earned a BA in Psychology from the University of California, which further fueled my interest in mental health. She went to the University of Southern California to get a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling and a doctorate in counseling psychology.
Fieldwork and internships were part of the PhD journey, the first of which was the JADE (Juvenile Aid Transformation Effort) project at the South Gate. This program was for teens who were arrested, and a lot of clients were taking risks. Instead of guiding them through the prison system, they would have been through this program.
My next internship was at the Child and Family Guidance Center [in Northridge] Where do I work now? I went there for field work. I started in shock, and knew it was right for me. … I’ve been doing this for 25 or 30 years, and when you work with trauma you see there are other issues like PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse.
Members of the medical community sometimes refer to the results of childhood adverse experiences (ACES) when they evaluate children. Can you explain that please?
Kaiser [and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] He conducted this study on negative childhood experiences. There are 10 different categories [of adverse experiences]The higher the score, the more it correlates with negative outcomes on physical and mental health.
Prior to that there was no such association with trauma and health.
Can you talk about children and toxic stress?
Toxic stress is that prolonged experience [something] Harmful, such as abuse or neglect. Exposure to parents who use drugs or suffer from mental illness. Chronic exposure to traumatic experiences.
I take the shock approach. When people think of trauma, most of them think of feelings and emotions such as sadness and depression. …a trauma-based approach is more holistic. [What’s] the influence [of trauma] in the brain? on me [children’s] Emotional development and regulation? [What’s] The effect on their cognition … on their physiological state? on their behavior? On their self-respect?
Think of a pandemic. If we said to each other in 2018, “Imagine there’s a virus out there. Imagine there are millions of deaths. Imagine the whole world is stopping and everyone has to stay indoors 24 hours a day. Hospitals are overwhelmed.”
You thought you were describing a movie.
But this is what happened to us. The trauma we have experienced – especially for children – is that our basic physiological integrity has been undermined. There were all of them Sudden death in families. Many children have lost their parents, grandparents, and extended families.
for disadvantaged communities, The stay-at-home order was somewhat different. When you live with multiple families in a very enclosed space — perhaps a one-bedroom apartment — if you really struggle with anxiety or depression, that fuels that. So, during the pandemic we’ve seen more rates of depression, anxiety, and stress.
If you had domestic violence at home, this stay-at-home order meant that you were at home with the offender and there was no escape…it was very scary for a lot of families.
How do children deal with grief?
For children it can be very confusing.
Supporting anyone through the healing process, you want to start by validating and normalizing feelings and then helping them process feelings related to the loss. Talk about positive memories and redefining relationships.
Learning how to regulate emotionally is very helpful, whether it’s sadness or any other mental health issue.
How can children be heard if they do not have the vocabulary necessary to deal with their mental health?
Their behavior speaks louder than words. Their behaviors are how children communicate about what is happening with them. that they [might] Pull back, be cool, or be aggressive and hit someone. If they are teenagers, they are [might] Running away, taking drugs, or injuring themselves.
If agencies take an informed approach to trauma, they look at the person holistically, which includes their experiences and not just symptoms.
If you take an informed approach to trauma at school, if you have kids who don’t do their homework or are aggressive, you won’t look at that child and say, “That’s a lazy kid.” instead of you [ask] “What’s going on with this kid?”
If the doctor can understand the presence of this trauma, he will connect the children to the appropriate mental health service.
Do you think the rate and level of shock is decreasing?
To some extent – sure. COVID hasn’t gone away, but we don’t have the stay-at-home order, kids will go back to school, get socializing and be outdoors. We go forward.
Are we fully cured and over it? of course not.
Sometimes it seems as though our public health system doesn’t have the capacity to help everyone who has experienced trauma and emotional pain during the pandemic. what or what else Resources available to children and families in marginalized communities?
The Department of Mental Health has several contracted agencies across the county. There are also centers that are not part of the department. There are centers that offer case management treatment and hotline assessments for psychology and psychopharmacology. Schools have therapists on campus.
There are bereavement centers like the Grief Support Center in our home. Community churches, parks, and community recreation centers [can help]. If they can get children together in a safe place, they socialize and connect with their peers.
There are great things on YouTube like yoga and teaching kids how to play guitar – many things that can engage kids in terms of music and art.
While making children recover, we [need to] Take a holistic approach including exercise, art, and healthy sleep – that’s huge. Also, basic nutrition. There are some applications that I offer to my clients and students. …. Mindfulness coach, PTSD coach, free apps created by the government.
Do you hope to find more solutions going forward, especially for children?
We know that as human beings we have this resilience and the ability to heal, and we have to support each other in this framework. We know some strategies we can use in terms of coping. We can be culturally responsive. I’m an optimist…otherwise I wouldn’t be in this field anyway.
We see success stories. I totally believe in healing and healing.
What can we as a culture… as a society… as a society… do to support our children? How can we help them heal?
As a society if we are aware of trauma and have empathy, this is a step forward versus critical judgment of ‘they should do better’.
Reducing the shame and stigma attached to mental health is enormous. If someone goes to the doctor, there is nothing wrong with that. If someone goes to a therapist and takes medication, there is a culture of shame. …we are beginning to go in the direction of trying to normalize mental health.
We all need support and healing, and there are different ways to get it. [We can] Be more dependent on strength, believe in our strength…give each other some grace.