When I was in fifth grade I wrote in my journal one day that I was upset about not having any real friends in class. My teacher reminded us, like she did every day, that our black-and-white composition notebooks were for our eyes only. She would read them only if we asked her to. That day, I asked her to.
This turned out to be my cry for help.
My parents had recently divorced after years of domestic violence and infidelity. My sister and I lived with my mom, who was grappling with the emotional and financial toll divorce takes on a family. Life at home was tense and shaky. I didn’t understand any of it.
That’s probably why a small fight with popular girls in class felt so catastrophic. In an instant, I became unglued.
As a journal-keeping adult (who has since gone through therapy), I believe that, as a child, I probably suffered from undiagnosed anxiety mixed with depression. I certainly wouldn’t be alone. Nearly one in seven children ages 2 to 8 in the United States has a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder, according to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey. One in five children ages 9 to 17 has a diagnosable disorder.
Despite the prevalence of mental-health issues in modern life, people of all ages still face many barriers to treatment. Costs are staggering and often not covered by insurance companies. There is a shortage of mental-health providers, especially in rural areas. And social stigmas run rampant even as awareness increases.
While many mental-health experts would agree that having a journal alone is not a substitute for mental-health treatment, it can help. What helps even more is that it’s so accessible. Journals can be tailored to any age, interest, ability and income level. You can doodle. Scribble. Color. There are no barriers.
“Imagine a photo journal, filled with images that are meaningful to the child, or a musical playlist, where the tone or lyrics of the songs capture a child’s feelings,” says Jaime Malone, a counselor at Insight Counseling and Consulting in New Jersey.
Malone says keeping a journal helps kids develop a sense of ownership and positive control over their emotions. These skills come in handy when events in their lives or in certain environments feel scary or out of their control.
When my daughters moved to Atlanta, there was no counselor on staff at their elementary school. This is not uncommon in school districts with stretched budgets. Unfortunately, it was during this time that I noticed one of my daughters struggling with her emotions, how to make sense of them, and how to manage them. When I would ask her, “What’s going on with you?” or “How was your day?” I’d get nothing but blank stares.
“Oftentimes, survivors of trauma, both adult and child, are reluctant to verbalize their experiences. For children especially, they may fear getting in additional trouble or upsetting adults,” says Kristen Arquette, a marriage and family therapist at New Vision Counseling in Washington state.
My daughter, like many girls, was programmed to please me and everyone around her. Instead of telling me how she felt, she would feign headaches for days. But keeping a journal helped her become more assertive. She could draw and write her feelings (she did them as comic strips) without shame or fear of judgment.
“Daily journaling presents regular opportunities to identify and explore emotions, express feelings and build an emotional vocabulary, attribute meaning to what has happened and engage in problem-solving,” Arquette says. “When these processes are allowed to happen, it is less likely that the child will externalize their feelings via engaging in disruptive behaviors, or internalize them resulting in psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches or muscle pains.”
Most parents can identify direct traumas and triggers quickly and easily: the bully at school, a move to a new house, a divorce or death in the family. But what if the trauma is more abstract and not so obvious?
In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed, and the numerous other school shootings before it, many parents, administrators and mental-health experts are starting to question how children across the nation are dealing with the collective grief and trauma of these terrifying tragedies.
“Trauma can occur for children after any emotional event, even one that they had no direct involvement with,” says Kimberly Hershenson, a social worker in New York City. “For children especially it may be difficult to make sense of things.”
As anyone who’s been around children knows, they are always listening. The hushed conversations between parents are heard. The newscasters who announce death tolls are heard. The social media posts from parents crying out in the virtual abyss are heard. Kids are hearing adults talk about these scary things, but that doesn’t mean they understand them.
“Children do not always know how to talk about what they’re feeling. Sometimes they’re unsure of what they’re feeling, especially in the wake of trauma, when things are unclear and don’t make much sense,” says Jacqui Blue, a hypnotherapist in California who specializes in trauma.
She suggests that children in the United States who are distraught over the shootings use the “unsent letter” technique to help them cope with their emotions or find some clarity.
“It is a letter that is never meant to be sent, but it enables the writer to get it out of them with a very powerful outlet,” Blue says.
The child chooses whom they are going to write the letter to: a teacher, a deceased student, a survivor, or even the shooter. Then they write down everything they need to say.
“Let it flow uncensored,” she suggests. After all, there is no script for grief and pain.
The raw nature of keeping a journal is exactly what makes it so cathartic. Teaching our kids about journaling and giving them the opportunity, space and privacy to do it can grow their emotional intelligence and empower them. And who knows; maybe one day, it will be their cry for help, like it was mine.
We can’t erase our children’s hurts and pains, but we can give them the tools and opportunities to write themselves back together again, especially when they’re feeling lost and broken.
Sarah Hosseini is an American writer living in New Delhi. She’s written for Cosmo, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Bustle, Romper, Scary Mommy and more. You can read her work at SarahHosseini.com.