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© 2010 By Deborah Beasley, ACPI CCPF

In the last two decades more attention has been focused on children and trauma than at any other time.   New scientific understanding of the brain emerged which shed new light on how trauma changes the brain and interrupts healthy development in a child. Trauma has been defined as “any unexpected, overwhelming, or prolonged event which goes unprocessed, unexpressed, and misunderstood.”   Dr. Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger Healing Trauma states that, “Trauma is not in the event itself; rather, trauma resides in the nervous system.”

What is Trauma?

Trauma is more than a catastrophic event.  Trauma can happen at any time, or at no particular time.  It damages some and leaves others untouched.  It can occur though the person is not physically present at the time of the event.  It can leave its dark imprint through hearing, seeing, smelling, or the feeling of it.  Examples are broad and sometimes not what we might expect:

  • Illness
  • Abuse
  • Violence
  • Adoption
  • Foster Care
  • Medical Procedures and long hospitalizations
  • Difficult birth
  • Abandonment and Neglect
  • Loss of a Caregiver/or many caregivers
  • Separation from Caregiver
  • Divorce
  • Accidents (e.g. falls from bikes or down stairs, automobile accidents)

Trauma has the potential of occurring whenever the body/mind system is triggered into believing it is in a life threatening environment.   Many have experienced being at home alone, perhaps late at night.  Everything is quiet; most of the lights are off.  We hear a noise from another room, or we think we hear something.  All of our senses swell in heightened alert.  We feel changes in our bodies.  We may become aware of perspiration, rapid shallow breathing, and thumping heartbeat.  Our eyes grow wide trying to take in as much light as possible.  Our hearing becomes acute to every sound. Internally, our blood rushes away from our digestive organs and pushes into our extremities.  We are preparing to run…or fight, if need be. This is who we are at our deepest functioning level.  One moment calm, the next triggered by a small sound into full survival mode.  Fight, flight, or freeze.  But, wait!  We discover only that the sound was the refrigerator turning on, or the dishwasher we pre-programmed earlier, or the normal sounds of a settling house.  We believed ourselves to be threatened and in danger of our lives.  This example sends home that , “What we perceive to be true we believe to be true.”   Our brain does not distinguish the difference.

Recent Studies

In 2001, the horrendous tragedy of 9-11 brought renewed attention to how children (and adults) experience traumatic stress and its effects on their lives.  According to the New York School of Medicine 1.2 million children from New York City alone were directly affected by the 9-11 attacks. Prominent scientists, neurologists, and psychologists throughout the United States began intensive studies on the affects of trauma on these children. 

The study focused on school-aged kids from 6-18 years.  Children with no prior psychopathology developed significant life crippling fears with diagnosable psychological and behavioral disorders after the 9-11 events.  Some of these developed within one month.  One year after this study, 1 in every 6 children continued to experience nightmares, bedwetting, fears of losing parents, fears of going out, and school bus aversion.  There was a notable increase in risk taking behaviors among this groups teenagers disproportionate to the general adolescent population.  Rises in cigarette smoking, drug and alcohol involvement, and oppositional behavior were prevalent, along with marked decline in academics.  The sudden and catastrophic effects the experience of traumatic stress leaves on the mind and bodies of children was understood clearly as a result of this and other intensive studies following the 9-11 attacks.

Trauma at the Body Level

The old adage: “Time heals all things” no longer applies in these and many other cases. We used to believe kids would ‘just get over it.’ We used to believe the younger they were the sooner they would forget.   After all, we know the plasticity of the brain and kids are born to be resilient.  The prevailing thought was that much of the infant and child’s brain was not yet functioning to full capacity.  The child was then not aware and therefore suffered less from the negative effects of life. How far from true this is!  “The event may have disappeared from conscious memory, but the body does not forget,” Dr. Peter Levine. Trauma, which goes unprocessed, unexpressed, and misunderstood, then develops at the cellular level and in the deepest sensory memories stored within the brain.    

The brain suffering the psychological and emotional insults and injuries of trauma was incapable of being healed; so was the prevailing thought little more than two decades ago. We now know that healing the brain is possible.   Dr. Susan Bradley, author of Affect Regulation and the Development of Psychopathology states; “It is through the sensory pathways that the damage occurred- and it is through the sensory pathways that healing can happen.”  Relationship is the key to healing.  A child’s relationship with a loving and supporting caregiver can create many opportunities for healing past traumas in a child’s life. The work is hard, and demands draining commitment and parental dedication.

Tell me…are you up to it?

Look for my next installment…