How Trauma Affects Children

Dr. Bruce Perry is a leading authority on children and trauma. During a lecture, he once asked listeners whether children are “sponges” — absorbing everything from their environments — or if they are resilient, with bad experiences harmlessly bouncing off of them. They can't be both, he reasoned. The answer? Children are more like sponges. “Children are resilient” is more apt when it comes to healing physically, as from a broken leg or the flu. In reality, life experiences make profound psychological effects on children.

Brain Functioning

When children are exposed to violence or are threatened in any way, they may regress, that is, act less than their age. An example common to most parents' experience is a relapse in potty training skills after the child experiences a stressful event. Other common examples are thumb sucking, or reliance on a “blankie” or other security object, or clinging to the parent.

However, it goes deeper than just these obvious visible signs, because regression is a symptom of less complex brain activity, of cognitive functioning happening in the brain stem, rather than the cerebral cortex. (Note that higher-order mammals have a cerebral cortex and a brain stem, while reptiles and lower-order animals have mostly a stem.) When a child or adult feels threatened or fearful, the animal instincts for protection kick in from the brain stem, and reason can go out the window as the person focuses on surviving.

Essential

The brain's need to direct activity parallels the discussion of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in Chapter 2. Just as a person can't be focused on staying alive and on self-actualization at the same time, a brain can't be thinking complex, abstract thoughts while the animal response to danger is kicking in. That's why writing an essay is difficult for a child living in fear.

This instinct works extremely well at helping people and animals survive, but it comes at a price: the more it happens, and the more a child lives in an aroused or fearful state of mind, the more brain pathways are strengthened for reacting to threat in an instinctual, rather than reasonable way. In fact, after this goes on for a while, what seems like minor provocation to someone else can be read by the child as a threat, and the child can react with violence.

Emotional Functioning: Attachment Revisited

In Chapter 2, you also learned about attachment, which is more than just a nice feeling but a theory that states that children need a strong relationship with a primary adult caregiver in order for normal development to take place. If the child is bounced from one caregiver to another, or has a caregiver who abuses or neglects him, or who simply fails to respond to his physical or emotional needs, a disorder known as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), or an insecure or disorganized attachment style can develop. A child with these problems may fail to engage in social interactions, or conversely may over-engage by acting as if everybody is his friend and trusting strangers. Of course, the child will still strive to meet basic needs from the bottom of the hierarchy, including for teens the need for sexual intimacy, and this can lead to inappropriate sexual relationships.

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