When Children Need to Grow Up Faster

PTSD and Post Traumatic Growth

By Tayyaba Syed

Jan/Feb 2024

Eight-year-old Etaf Saleh was playing outside with her siblings, while their baby sister slept peacefully inside the house. Suddenly they heard jets overhead and loud booms. “It’s war! It’s war!” Saleh’s mother began screaming and ushering them quickly to safety.

“We’d never witnessed anything like it,” recalls Saleh, now in her sixties, of her experience living through the 1967 Six-Day War in Silwad, a West Bank town next to Ramallah. “Bombs were coming down everywhere, and we started to escape toward the center of the town. My mom then remembered she had forgotten my sleeping baby sister and ran back home as we waited for her.”

The families were instructed to head up the mountains into designated caves. They hid there for seven days. That one week changed the trajectory of their lives forever. 

“I don’t know how we had food or anything, but every day there was bombing,” shares Saleh, who now lives with her family in Willowbrook, Ill. After seven days, they were instructed by the Israeli forces to return home even though the bombing continued. Frightened and weary, families held up white cloths and flags and headed back down the mountains. “Last year, my mom passed away at the age of 92. Yet she never stopped talking about what we endured and said that for years we [children] would wake up screaming at night from the trauma.”

The fear of being bombed, being killed, being separated from or losing your family, having to abandon your home and hide in a cave, surviving on little food, not being able to just be a kid and play and laugh and learn…what can that do to one’s psyche? 

On the eighth day, Saleh rode along with her mother and siblings in boarded trucks to escape to Jordan. Their father, who had been working in Kuwait, was waiting for them across the river. 

“My older brother was probably in eighth or ninth grade, so we had to cover him and other young [adolescent] men [so they would not] be taken away,” Saleh says. “In those few hours, we saw people lying dead in the streets. I remember asking why this was happening and was told, ‘They are killing us.’ How can I sleep as a child after this? I would hear the sound of bombs even after we had escaped and couldn’t unsee all those dead bodies I had seen with my own little eyes.”

After staying in Jordan for a few days, the Saleh family began heading to Kuwait. Her brother decided he wanted to remain in Jordan for high school. Saleh states how difficult it was to leave him and be apart from him; however, she admits, he became very resilient from the experience. Once Saleh herself was old enough, she insisted on pursuing her undergraduate studies abroad. 

“I got accepted into schools in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq,” she remarks. “However, my father wouldn’t let me go on my own. He told me I could go study in America instead and live with my oldest brother, who had come here in 1974, five years before me. The application and paperwork were never-ending, but we made it happen somehow. 

“My whole family was crying at the airport — all except me. I was just so happy to finally get out and be on my own, even though this was my very first time flying in an airplane at age 19. Before leaving Kuwait, my father taught me how to drive, I learned how to type and I took English classes. I was ready. You can’t let anything overpower you. If you don’t have iman (faith), you don’t have anything. That’s the most important thing.”

Made Her Stronger

Even though Saleh feels she had to grow up faster after experiencing the trauma of war, she still believes it only made her stronger. The current Israel-Gaza war brings back horrific memories, though. She cries every day and worries how the people, especially the children, will recover from it. 

According to Dr. Fahad Khan (licensed clinical psychologist and deputy director, Khalil Center, Lombard, Ill.) traumatized children can skip a stage of childhood.

“Trauma can affect how they respond to stress, affect their thinking and emotional abilities and even hinder natural tendencies such as creativity and fantasy,” says Khan, who has won awards from the American Psychological Association for his work and dedication. “Meta-analysis studies show signs of aging in traumatized kids and physical changes in the brain that can be measured. Someone who is older and is traumatized can accelerate [in aging] with post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] in adult life.” 

Khan states PTSD symptoms can linger long after the trauma ends and can be triggered at any moment: socially, emotionally and even within relationships. “The way our brains are structured and emotions are stored is different from where complicated thinking happens (in the frontal cortex),” he says. “When we are traumatized, high-level thinking leaves, and you can’t think rationally or logically in that emotional state of mind. What we want to see [more of] is more post-traumatic growth in people.”

Post-traumatic growth is the positive psychological change that some individuals experience after a life crisis or a traumatic event, according to Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/post-traumatic-growth), which also states that post-traumatic growth doesn’t deny deep distress. Rather, it posits that adversity can unintentionally yield changes in understanding oneself, others and the world. 

Trauma Beyond War

Trauma isn’t just limited to war. Fareeha Aziz of Houston also saw this in her oldest child, who was only eight when she was divorced. Suddenly she was a single mother of her newborn, two toddlers, and eight-year-old son. How does a child process such drastic changes?

“My kids had to grow up so quickly when everything happened,” Aziz recalls, who spent eleven years on her own before remarrying. “My eldest for sure was traumatized by it all, reckoning with reality and trying to process everything. My kids had to take care of themselves to help me. When children are around unpredictable situations and people, they start to understand adult subjects sooner than necessary.”

Despite the difficulty Aziz, 42, has endured, has done her best to keep a positive mindset about life and has full trust in God. Instead of focusing on the past or future, she is determined to make the most of whatever time she has left on Earth. “Ask Allah for help for whatever you’re going through and then really believe in [that help].”

Another example of trauma can be when your health is tested. Mother of four Nafeesah Zabadneh of Lombard, Ill., was diagnosed with Lupus in 2020. Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that causes your immune system, which usually fights infections, to attack healthy tissue instead. It can cause inflammation and pain in any part of your body.

“I am 41, but I feel like I am much older and weaker,” states Zabadneh. “If you see how I walk, you can tell something’s wrong. I’m on the smaller side but feel so heavy. Lupus affects your organs and your breathing. Sometimes I’m so fatigued that I can’t even take care of my kids properly. I feel so guilty at times and just try to push through my debilitating health. I can’t even braid my youngest’s hair due to cysts on my joints and stiffness. I took things for granted when I was healthy, but I don’t want to be a burden on anyone.”

Many times, Zabadneh feels like she’s fighting against her own body. She describes it as “watching the world go by” while she stands still. She wonders if this is how it will always be or if it will get better, knowing that right now there is no cure. Major life changes, trauma and difficult circumstances can cause kids to grow up faster than normal, to age out of innocence much sooner. Zabadneh is seeing this with her eldest child. 

“I’m praying that I can still be there for my family and community somehow through all this,” she says. “I’m grateful for a supportive husband, and if it wasn’t for my 15-year-old I wouldn’t be able to take care of my toddler. She is like a second mother to her siblings.”

Tayyaba Syed is a multiple award-winning author, journalist and Islamic studies teacher. She conducts literary and faith-based presentations for all ages and is an elected member of her local school district’s board of education in Illinois, where she lives with her husband and three children. Learn more at www.tayyabasyed.com.

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