Thoughtful Parenting: Children and trauma
January 22, 2017
No parent wants to believe his or her child has endured a traumatic experience. Children are generally protected in their day-to-day lives. Traumatic events are defined as any events that are outside a person's normal, expectable life experiences and that are perceived as a threat to a person's physical and psychological safety and even life.
Physical abuse, neglect, exposure to parental substance addiction, witnessing domestic violence, abduction and sexual abuse are experienced by children as traumatic events. Add to that list everyday, seemingly ordinary, events, such as seeing a friend hurt; being in an automobile crash; being bullied or watching another child be bullied; learning of the death of a friend, family member or beloved pet; being ignored or dismissed repeatedly when asking for help; being left alone; living in a divorce war zone; and having to spend time with a person perceived by the child as being untrustworthy or dangerous.
No parent deliberately exposes his or her children to any of the above traumatic events. Many of us do not consider the way we were raised by our parents to be abusive, much less traumatic. When we were children, some of us were spanked "for our own good." As parents, we believe, perhaps unconsciously, that naughty children deserve to be spanked to teach them a lesson. However, when a child's sense of self and psychological safety is threatened by parental deliberate or unintentional acts, those are encoded in the child's brain as traumatic. Other writers in this column have pointed out there are many ways to teach children acceptable behavior without resorting to physical harm.
What happens to a child's brain when he or she is traumatized? Trauma causes the child's alarm system to undergo physiological changes, which lead to an increase in stress hormone (fight, flight, freeze) activity and alters the part of the brain (amygdala — think almond) that determines if information is scary or not scary.
Trauma also weakens the area of the brain that communicates the physical, gut-level feeling of being alive. The higher centers of the brain are also vulnerable to compromise by traumatic experiences. Those higher centers help evaluate experiences and tell the alarm system whether to calm itself.
In children exposed to trauma, the higher centers of the brain do not participate in decision-making, so fear-based responses prevail. These children may react in a manner out of proportion to a seemingly benign incident. In children exposed to trauma, the ability to self-regulate is weakened.
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How can we adults help? If parents know their children have been exposed to trauma, they can understand that such behaviors as tantrums, excessive fear, distractedness, aggressiveness and/or shutting down have a basis beyond the child's control. Being accepting, attuned to and empathic with the child is the first part of helping him or her. Using words to label how the child is feeling, no matter how irrational it may seem, comes next. Protecting the child from harming him/herself and others is third on the list. Being present for the child and using calming and soothing language will help the child regain self-regulation.
After the child has calmed, a problem-solving discussion may or may not be appropriate. Consulting with child specialists can be of great help. Those professionals' names are found in the "Family Connections" resource guide, published by First Impressions in partnership with the Routt County Youth Services Coalition. Once the traumatic event, experience or factor has been identified, parents must do their best to keep their children from being retraumatized. Listen to and believe your children.
Chris Young, Ph.D. is a retired licensed psychologist who specialized in children and families. She can be reached at 970-291-9259 for consultation.