Trauma and Children
“Our family experienced the flood of 2016,” shares Christine Varnado, LPC, MAMFT, Th.M. of Healing Hearts Counseling. “It was somewhat traumatic when we had to be rescued. Our oldest boy was three at the time, and afterward, he continued to play with a boat, and he would create a trash pile for toys. Often the adults wanted to change it, and I said, ‘Let’s let him stay with this.’ Initially, his expressions were really angry when he would trash. But then it softened, and it became typical playing with a boat.”
Our city has witnessed its share of trauma, and our children are affected. Often, what we interpret as negative behavior is really a cry for help. As parents and caregivers, it’s up to us to connect with them and aid them in healing. Trauma is real, and it has a real impact on children.
Individual trauma results from an event or series of events experienced as physically or emotionally harmful that can leave lasting effects on the individual’s physical, social, and emotional well-being. Varnado explains that during traumatic experiences, “especially if it’s continued or complex, brains are trained in fight, flight, or freeze mode, and without appropriate processing through those circumstances, children have limited access to the part of the brain known as the ‘upstairs portion,’ or the prefrontal cortex, which contains impulse control, delayed gratification, and problem solving.” Instead, children are using the “‘downstairs portion,’ the brain stem and limbic region, which includes the fear center. This is an animalistic type state with no control. We want them to go to the ‘upstairs portion’ of their brain, where they can problem solve, but they can’t access it in the middle of fear,” explains Varnado.
“We tend to think of the trauma as a snapshot, but most of these traumatic experiences we have are ongoing,” says Tom Davis, PhD and Director of LSU Psychological Services. Trauma is hard to pinpoint because it’s such an individual experience. What may be traumatic for one child may not be traumatic for another. Trauma is defined by the person who experiences it, so it’s impossible to produce a finite list of causes. Some common causes are: accidents, surgeries/serious illnesses, separation from loved ones, intense bullying, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, natural disaster/weather-related event, community violence, substance abuse, and loss/abandonment.
Varnado sees examples of sexual abuse among her clients, which she says is really prevalent. She adds, "another cause that may be dismissed or not seen as trauma is discord among parents. Persistent fighting in front of children, or parents not being able to provide attention” can also cause trauma. Children can experience multiple kinds of trauma compounded onto one another, and often, foster or adoptive children will have experienced a long string of negative traumatizing events, says Varnado.
Effects on the Brain
Though the causes of trauma may differ, the effects on a child’s brain are well known. Varnado describes, “When a traumatic event happens in children, it’s stored in implicit memory, where they basically lose control of it. Six months later, something may happen because the trauma is stored with the sights, the smells, and the other senses. That’s the implicit memory doing its job saying, ‘I need help. I need to process this.’ And if we’re not aware of that, it’s just going to look like negative behavior.”
“Often when a child has been exposed to trauma, what becomes most evident is negative behavior. Because we’re human, teachers or parents don’t like negative behavior, and we’re prone to respond to just the behavior,” Varnado explains. “Children need parents to have a deeper emotional connection to their actual needs.” Instead of reacting in anger or discipline, comment on their behavior and feelings. Consider, “You look really sad” or “Your heart is racing really fast” and connect with the emotional level. Approaching the behavior this way “has a huge impact on utilizing the portion of their brain that can make good choices,” says Varnado.
What type of behaviors should you be looking for if you suspect a child has been impacted by trauma? According to Dr. Davis, common behaviors can be intrusive thoughts, recurring dreams, distressing dreams, change in mood, irritability, anger outbursts, repetitive play, and problems concentrating. Varnado adds to his list: “aggressive types of behavior, regressive types like bedwetting or baby talk, frustration over small things, trouble sleeping, headaches, and stomach aches.”
Your response to these behaviors can help alleviate the stress or add to it. Varnado advises, “Be cautious of your eye contact. Maintain soft eyes and a kind tone in your voice. If you’re yelling or looking at them with hard eyes, the fear center will continue to be activated and you will continue that cycle. Attention or connection you provide your child is largely impactful in helping them process and bring about healing.”
You’ve spotted the signs, and you want to get help for your child, so what is the next step? Dr. Davis recommends giving a child some time after a traumatic event because “there may be a period of time where they need a little bit of room. You want to allow some time for the child to process what they’ve been through. Children will have varying degrees of risk and resilience. Stay involved and be observant and get them help if they are having trouble.”
Both experts suggest seeking professional counseling if you see persistent patterns that are negatively affecting life. However, there are also several things you can do to aid in healing. “Try to get the child back into a normal routine,” says Dr. Davis. If it’s a natural disaster, weather-related event, or a community event, “limit media exposure because nonstop information can compound the trauma. Parents can be filters for that information.” He also advises to be aware of getting the child to talk about the event before they are ready. “There’s a fine line, but what we do know is forcing someone to talk about something traumatic when they don’t want to can also have negative effects. It can intensify the dose of trauma,” he shares.
On the other hand, if a child is opening up, let them speak. “When children express fear or shame, adults want to change the subject and get their mind off that. That’s unproductive. It’s really important for adults to be aware that telling those negative emotions can bring about healing. Paying attention and allowing a kid to tell his story are two of the most important things you can do regarding trauma,” says Varnado. She also stresses the impact of play. She observes the wonders that play therapy can have on a child suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “When the amygdala is triggered, fear is present, but play deactivates fear. Play can also provide that connected attunement. You’re paying attention to them and tracking their behavior.”
Even with counseling, memories of the trauma will still linger. “The therapies we have do not make the traumatic memories go away,” explains Dr. Davis. “The goal, though, is to turn the volume down on their intensity. But keep in mind, the longer you go without therapy if you need it, the more entrenched symptoms can become.” Varnado agrees that seeking help is a necessity if trauma is affecting your child. Without proper attention, the trauma can impact a lifetime. ■