The statistics aren’t going anywhere when it comes to childhood abuse. In fact, more and more children are suffering from childhood neglect, physical abuse or sexual abuse by the age of 5 than many will experience in their lifetime. In Kansas City alone, thousands of children suffer from what is called “complex trauma”.
To understand complex trauma, we have to understand “trauma” itself. Trauma can be defined as anything that a person, or in this case, a child perceives as a danger to his or her life or a danger to someone else’s life. Trauma can also be something that is an effect of how a child’s parents handled a situation, such as a divorce, natural disaster, or death in the family.
Let’s say a child grows up in a poverty. This child was found running the streets without shoes on during a Winter day because his single mother was at work and had no one to watch him. After the third time this happened, the child was taken into foster care and separated from his entire family including siblings. [Trauma 1, separated from mother]. [Trauma 2, separated from siblings].
Then, this child experienced physical abuse within the foster home. [Trauma 3]. The child was then moved to another foster home and new school where he was bullied and got beat up on the playground. When he got home, the parents told him he was a “wimp” and “sissy” and that he would never amount to anything [Trauma 4]. After that, he was removed from this foster home and put with a kind family who took the best care of him they could. This was all before the child was 6 years old.
Unfortunately, this example is a true one, and it’s one of the few that ends in a positive ending. If children don’t receive services, help, or a safe environment at home where all their needs are met, they can end up with what I call a trauma “cake”.
Like cake, trauma has layers. When one trauma happens and it doesn’t get addressed, and then another trauma happens, these events are layering up inside. The emotions, the memories, the behaviors, the impact is all building on top of another.
Let me paint you a picture.
In this picture, you can see how trauma layers up. Trauma cakes can also be referred to as complex trauma, meaning there isn’t just one specific event the child or person needs to heal from, but there are several.
How Trauma Affects Young Children
Trauma elicits “fight, flight or freeze”, a stress response that ignites signals in our brains to fire and tells us that we need to do something in order to survive. Everyone’s stress response is different depending on the situation. For example, someone like me would freeze when face-to-face with a lion; others would flee (flight) and a few would try to fight the lion off.
Trauma affects children in the same way. It fires their brain releasing cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline (elicits the fight/flight/freeze). Doing so causes significant impact on the brain’s development during these ages and the trauma often gets “stored” inside the child’s body.
What this means is that trauma will manifest in the body in many different ways. Children often come to me as the “defiant” child at school or “manipulative”. Children don’t have the capacity to manipulate; however they do have the capacity to do what they need to do to get their needs met; therefore, each behavior serves a function.
The defiant child not listening is getting a need met by you giving her attention.
The manipulative child is getting some control back in his life when maybe it’s in an uproar.
Children don’t often have the language to name or verbalize their feelings of their trauma, so it gets stuck in temper tantrums, it comes out as crying fits or spells, it gets seen as stealing or lying, or jumping when touched.
We need not ask children anymore “What did you do?”, but moreso, we need to ask “What happened to you?”
Telling a child to “man up” or “get over it” or “calm down” completely invalidates the child’s feelings and need to be heard and overlooks what their behavior is trying to communicate. Ask yourself instead “What purpose does the behavior serve?”
If you can begin to answer them, you can begin to respond to your child in more healthy and positive ways. For the child who has experienced multiple traumas or even a single trauma, remember that it affects their social and emotional development. It makes a 8-year old act 3. It stunts their development so that some are still sucking their thumb at age 10 or wetting the bed at age 12.
Their behavior is trying to tell you something. Are you willing to read it?
*If you have a child who has been through a traumatic experience, seek professional help in order to provide the best chance of healing.
Robin Helget, LMSW, CPT
Resolve - Counseling & Wellness
Prairie Village, KS