By Karine Bell, December 2019
Bessel van der Kolk, a leading voice in the study of trauma, and author of “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” has called childhood trauma the “hidden epidemic” due to its modern day prevalence coupled with our lack of understanding around how it is that a child comes to experience trauma and how it presents itself in their experience and behavior.
This guide is intended to help shed light on how trauma manifests in the experience of children, because it can look different from how trauma impacts adults. Understanding how trauma looks in our children empowers us to become more aware, better able to respond, and to take action in ways that can change the game for children in their future to come. Let’s explore this important topic.
What could a child experience as a trauma?
What’s important to understand about trauma is that it can result from any experience we can have in which we lacked the resources to meet the challenge we perceived. Trauma is what happens when we were overwhelmed by the circumstances we were facing and without adequate resources or support we couldn’t digest and integrate the experience fully, leaving a memory of the experience in our bodies that’s often outside conscious awareness.
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from themselves.” – Bessel van der Kolk
Dr. Peter Levine, the founder of the pioneering Somatic Experiencing trauma healing modality, has said about trauma, and especially trauma for a young person, that trauma “is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” The empathetic witnesses are the people whose presence provides a sense of safety necessary for a person to know that they were not alone in the experience, the people who offer both in their presence and in their words the comfort, “it’s ok, I’m here.” This presence of the witness provides an anchor of support for the person who’s overcome by fear in the experience.
Trauma can be any overwhelming experience, and our lives, from birth to death, can potentially be touched by it. “The single most important issue for traumatized people is to find a sense of safety in their own bodies.”— Bessel van der Kolk. We know that trauma can happen during gestation, during birth, and in the earliest years of our lives in and through various experiences. For example, a child can experience trauma during routine medical procedures and more complex medical interventions in which medical professionals have to act against the natural fight or flee response in a child in order to perform the intervention; perhaps by holding them down. Often these are life saving and necessary interventions, and yet they can still be experienced by the child as danger or threat, which has an impact upon their body and mind in the experience and beyond. Their biology simply responds, and they lack the biological and psychological development necessary to make sense of the situation or to regulate their own distress.
Trauma can be an acute, one-time incident, or it can be an on-going experience, like that of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, but it can also be experienced in less obvious, though highly stressful, situations like a parent’s chronic illness, incarceration or the separation or divorce of a child’s parents. We know that stressful and overwhelming events in childhood can potentially lead to structural changes within the brain that impact a child’s ability to take in new information, to regulate emotions and contribute to reactive and irrational responses. We’re especially vulnerable the younger we are, given the high level of dependency we have on our environment and the people within it to provide a sense of safety for us.
Infants and young children have a nervous system that is still in development, and will continue to develop for years to come, and because of that they, especially, need help to regulate their feelings of distress. This makes them more vulnerable to trauma when their environment doesn’t provide that regulation for them. It’s also an unfortunate reality for many children that the people they are dependent upon for safety are also sometimes the people with whom they don’t feel safe. What we know about trauma is that no two people may experience the same event in the exact same way. But the more trauma exposure we’ve had without the ability to metabolize it and come back into resilience, the more prone we are to becoming traumatized in future events.
What does unresolved trauma look like?
There are signposts in a person’s life that can tell us something about what’s happening in their physiology. These signposts, or symptoms, can be indicators that there is unresolved trauma in their system that creates dysregulation, imbalances, in body and mind, but which others might interpret as simply acting out or as “difficult” behaviors. (This is true for children as well as adults.)
Understanding how trauma can present both physically, mentally and emotionally, therefore, is crucial if we want to learn how we can really help children in need. Our bodies have an innate wisdom that wants to move us towards healing. As a parent, teacher or caretaker of a child, you can become a compassionate witness and help to create an environment of safety and trust in which a child’s healing can take place. Depending on the child, they may well need additional support to work with trauma, but we cannot underestimate the healing potential in having present and loving adults around them, because we know that healing happens in relationship.
Children respond to stress and overwhelming situations in different ways, as we all do, but because they often lack the language and the ability to make sense of the experiences they’re having, they will often somaticize their stress and overwhelm. Meaning, stress can be expressed through their bodies in the form of physical symptoms (this is true of many adults, too, but especially kids).
In addition to this, children, out of necessity, cannot blame what’s wrong in their environment without the fear of losing important relationships, relationships they associate with survival. Therefore, it may be hard for them to name the source of their distress, but nevertheless, their body and behavior can tell the story for them.
Body-based Symptoms Can Appear As:
Headaches (migraines in the teenager or adult may start as
Stomach aches, or abdominal migraines, in the child)
Stomach aches, and aches and pains of all sorts
Nightmares and night terrors
Restlessness and agitation in the body
Inability to fall asleep
Emotional/Psychological Symptoms Can Appear As:
Chronic negative thinking
Excessive anger, frustration and irritability
Inability to focus or concentrate
Fear of social situations and people
Feelings of sadness and hopelessness
Persistent fears and phobias
Behaviors And Traits Can Appear As:
Difficulty managing strong emotions
Acting out aggression/bullying others
Lack of access to healthy “fight” response
Difficulty going to school and being in groups of people
Hypochondria (health anxiety)
When children exhibit behaviors like ‘acting out’, showing excessive aggression or physical symptoms, or ‘acting in’ (obsessive thinking, negative thinking, withdrawal), it’s often a good indication that their system has been overwhelmed by an event, or in an on-going situation.
Just like adults, children can respond to these experiences through going into fight/flight – biting, kicking, hitting, punching, for example – or by going into shut down modes of freeze – like withdrawing, becoming isolated and excessively quiet. They can have a tendency towards one mode or another, or they can cycle into and out of these modes.
It’s hard for children, as it’s hard for us at times, when they act out from a place of need like this (to feel safe), because their behavior (the acting out or withdrawal) is often met with a parent’s or teacher’s anger, frustration or just overwhelm and helplessness in knowing how to respond. This is such a common experience for so many adults, but when we respond out of anger, or out of overwhelm, we’re often unconsciously reinforcing the sense of disconnection and “not safe” that they’re already feeling. So what can we do?
As adults in a child’s life, one of the first things we can do is educate ourselves about how trauma lives on in the body and mind and how it impacts behavior. This understanding can already help us reframe so much of our thinking and open up a space for the child to be received by us in a new way. It can help us see beyond the behavior to the child in need. This is so important. For them and for us.
Bearing in mind that there are biological, psychological and social aspects to trauma – even if we don’t know what all of those are – can help sensitize us to have a more open and curious orientation towards those whose experience is different from ours and we may struggle to understand.
There are cultural, historical, and gender-related aspects for which our best approach is not to assume we know or understand how trauma may manifest for someone, but to be open to learning how. This curious and open orientation expands our own capacity to learn more from the most current research on trauma and its effects, and how different experiences of trauma influence different people and social groups. Over time, that information can come to influence how we relate and respond to the children in our lives, and the adults, too.
Truly the greatest gift we can give a child who has experienced trauma is the gift of our own regulated nervous system. That is, through our own calm and loving presence, we can provide the environment within which their healing can begin to unfold.
This can be extremely challenging for us for many reasons, one of which being our own unresolved trauma and the circumstances of our everyday lives and the cultures we live in that can put a lot of pressure on us, and them, to “get on with things” or “push through” in order to simply keep going.
The better regulated we are, the more respond-able we become; able to respond with more calm, warmth and non-judgment, which is part of communicating to a child that they are safe, it is safe, to experience what they’re experiencing. This helps them become regulated and we become an important resource for them.
Healing and wholeness unfold when resources expand. What are resources? They’re internal and external sources of support that are like touchstones for us in times of need, our resources can regulate us and serve as reminders to us of how we are supported.
External resources can be a friend, a therapist, a family pet, a weighted blanket, or a beautiful tree in our garden that we feel soothed by when we sit at its base. Internal resources can be our ability to connect with the breath (this is not a resource for everyone, but can be for some), to feel into our experience and “hold it” in our own loving awareness; it can be a felt sense of support we notice in our bodies when sitting in a chair, it can be a loving thought or positive memory.
For many people who’ve experienced trauma, they may have a greatly diminished sense of resources; fewer things that help regulate them in their distress. We can fall out of touch with what we love, forget what soothes and comforts us, or have a diminished ability to take in a sense of safety and pleasure altogether. Expanding our resources, beginning to notice and take in pleasurable experiences and goodness, is a powerful healer and regulator for us and for our kids.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about healing a child’s experience of trauma without talking about the adults around them, for important reasons that I hope this short guide has made clear. Children depend upon the regulated nervous system of the adults around them to feel safe. It’s for that reason that the work to heal our kids begins with the work we do to heal what needs to be healed in us so that we can show up in a child’s life – as their parent, their teacher, their counselor, or their therapist – embodying the qualities in us that they need to feel safe.
Focusing on educating ourselves around the impact of trauma and the steps necessary to heal is key to reducing the adverse effects of trauma in adulthood. The findings of the now famous Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (or ACES) have revealed a startling link between childhood trauma and health risk behaviors and mental and physical disease in adulthood. Adverse childhood experiences have been associated with suicide risk, substance abuse, higher rates of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and further trauma transmission from one generation to the next.
The healing journey can start today by increasing your education around trauma, and expanding your awareness of available resources to work with trauma.