Mental Notes with Hilary Valdez: Children in pain

Mental Notes with Hilary Valdez: Children in pain

by Hilary Valdez
Stripes Okinawa

Quite a few years ago, one Christmas Eve on Atsugi Naval Base, a condominium fire led to the displacement of several children in the complex. Afterwards, in the de-briefing session with several tiny kids, I could tell it was painful for them. As a counselor, it painful for me, too. Their questions were emotionally upsetting, such as: “Will Sant Clause return?” “What happened to my cat?” “Will we still have a turkey dinner?” “Will I still have Christmas presents?” “Where will we sleep?” In a child’s mind these are serious question pertaining to their reality and emotional well-being. Children often have ups and downs that affect the way they feel and behave. But sometimes children don’t “bounce back” from the downs, and this starts to affect other parts of their lives. This can be a sign that children are having mental health problems.

The children were afraid. I asked them about their reaction to the fire. Their reactions were on the smell of the smoke, about running into the darkness, running for safety, the big flames they witnessed or the cold air they met once they were away from the building. Childhood trauma is defined as an experience caused by an event that is emotionally painful or distressful resulting in lasting mental and physical effects, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Psychologically, it may present itself in children as a bottling up of emotions or fear to express emotions leading to depression, anxiety, or anger. As a trauma specialist, I have found that a common symptom of exposure to a traumatic event leads to short-term emotional distress.

Children, like adults, differ in their reactions to traumatic events. The reactions of children may be influenced by their maturity level, ethnicity, cultural factors, personality traits, and previous trauma exposure. Many children and adolescents express some kind of distress or behavioral change in the acute phase of recovery from a traumatic event. Not all short-term responses to trauma are problematic. Developing resilience skills take practice and time.

Pain is a personal experience, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry asserts. It involves not just a physical sensation but impacts on emotional and mental wellbeing. Pain is often described as either acute or chronic. Acute pain is pain that occurs within the normal period of healing, for example after an injury like a broken bone or sprained muscle, illness, infection or surgery. Chronic pain (or persistent pain) is when it continues beyond the usual period of healing. This is often defined as pain that lasts for three months or longer 
According to the Parenting Research Center, if your child has repeated tantrums or consistently behaves in a defiant or aggressive way, seems sad or unhappy, cries a lot, consistently is afraid or worried, or avoids social situations, has trouble paying attention, or can’t sit still or is restless, it’s time for an intervention. If you notice a sudden change in your child’s mood or behavior, encourage your child to talk with you about their feelings. Then, of course, seek individual counseling.

If you’re not sure how to talk with your child about mental health issues, try telling your child that you’ve noticed they seem sad, and you want to help. Create a safe space free of judgment and reactions, so they can feel free to express their feelings. Acknowledge their reactions as a normal response to an abnormal event, remind them that it is normal to be stressed, worried or sad sometimes.

The Australian Psychological Association suggests other ways for parents to help children cope with stress in healthy ways. Some of these include providing a safe and stable home, managing parental stressors, encouraging physical activity, monitoring television or online content children are consuming and providing children opportunities to make choices and have some control in their lives. The more your child feels they have control over a situation, the better their response to stress will be.


Hilary Valdez is a retiree living in Japan. He is an experienced Mental Health professional and Resiliency Trainer. Valdez is a former Marine and has worked with the military most of his career and most recently worked at Camp Zama as a Master Resiliency Trainer. Valdez now has a private practice and publishes books on social and psychological issues. His books are available on Amazon and for Kindle. Learn more about Valdez and contact him at the website or Email.

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