by Debi Grebenik
Debi Grebenik is executive director of Maple Star, an organization that provides foster care placement and in-home therapeutic services in Colorado. She is also a Newman University social work instructor, as well as a private practice therapist specializing in adoption and parenting children who have trauma histories.
Derived from ancient Greek, the term “trauma” developed from words that meant “a wound” or “piercing.” Today, we recognize trauma as a physical or psychological injury, or a combination of both. Foster care and adopted children endured physical and/or psychological abuse that can start before birth. To care for traumatized children effectively, parents must understand how trauma affects a child’s brain and how to support their children while promoting healing.
Trauma and Brain Development
Psychic trauma occurs when a sudden, unexpected, and overwhelming emotional blow or series of blows assaults a person. Traumatic events are external and uncontrollable and can encompass everything from abuse or neglect, to witnessing tragedies or natural disasters, serious accidents, and loss. The degree of trauma imparted relates to how helpless a person feels during the event or events.
External trauma leaves imprints on the brain known as unconscious memories. These memories and the feelings they evoke can be activated by sensory experiences that may be related to the initial trauma, even when danger is long past.
In the womb, babies develop the ability to hear during the second trimester—between 14 and 24 weeks of gestation. Sounds of chaos or violence, especially when they involve the mother, affect the baby’s development. Additionally, the baby can be affected by chemical changes that occur when the mother is deeply stressed, depressed, or unhappy.
The brain’s most important development occurs before age three. If a baby’s basic safety, security, and stability needs are not met in those early years her brain development may be impaired. The lack of age-appropriate brain development can impair synaptic connections and prevent children from being able to logically and sequentially process incoming information.
Children born into environments that are not able to meet their developmental needs can also experience right brain developmental setbacks—particularly related to coping with stress. Trauma over-stimulates the amygdale, the brain’s threat center creating a hyper- vigilant state of being where traumatized children may be triggered by visual or auditory stressors or overwhelmed by chaotic situations.
Hampered by their inability to regulate emotions, children may resort to socially unacceptable behaviors when faced with uncomfortable emotions. Behaviors may include aggression and hostility or a retreat into numbness and depression. Children may even demonstrate dissociative tendencies ranging from daydreaming to amnesia.
To prepare for parenting traumatized children, parents must first acknowledgetheir own fears and past history. Without this insight, the children’s behavior may cause caregivers to respond out of fear—fear of not knowing how to respond, fear of losing control, fear of failing those they love, and fear of their own unresolved issues. In this state, parents may be unavailable to make sense of their children’s trauma-related behavior.
The best gift parents can give traumatized children is to remain present for them in their pain and accept the hurt without trying to fix the child. To do that, parents must manage their own fears and emotional distress so they can be prepared to respond appropriately when a child is triggered to re-live a past trauma.
Parents should identify their own threat responses and how they start to feel when fears are triggered. That way, they can recognize when they need to be thoughtful about how they react to their child’s behavior. Parents should also practice and employ techniques to keep themselves calm—deep breathing, focusing on one thing at a time, staying in the present, relaxation, and meditation.
Parenting Strategies for Traumatized Children
Though there are no magic parenting strategies tohelp all children, below are some basic tenets that support parents’ efforts to care for traumatized children.
Match your response to your child’s developmental age.
When children live through traumatic events, they may be developmentally far younger than their chronological age. A 15-year-old, for instance, may be only age 7 emotionally and age 10 socially. When stressed, the youth may behave as a much younger child and that is the level at which his parents must relate to him if they are to guide , teach, and support him.
Because traumatized children often miss developmental steps, parents must back track and consciously guide them through earlier stages. We cannot expect children to run emotionally before they crawl or walk. Lecturing an emotionally young 15-year-old is similar to explaining to a toddler the connection between their current behavior and consequences next week. If a child lacks the ability to understand, lecturing will frustrate both the child and parent. When directions need to be given, break the information into smaller steps with clear and simple expectations.
Listen to your child’s behavior.
Many traumatized children lack the ability to verbalize pain, shame, fears, or other deep emotions. They are far more likely to communicate through behaviors. If we “listen” to the behavior, it may reveal the child’s actual need. By responding only to the behavior, we are telling the child we do not want to hear what they are trying to say.
In one family I worked with, the daughter was defecating into shoeboxes and stacking them in her closet. I told the parents her actions signaled that she felt safe enough to give them her literal and figurative poop. The behavior was how the girl could act out the intense pain that she was not able express verbally. We advised the parents to tell their daughter that they could handle everything she had to give them.
If the parents were to punish their daughter for these actions, they would be short circuiting her ability to express her very deep distress . By accepting the behavior, they offered the girl a chance to process her pain and move toward healing.
Maintain a non-threatening demeanor.
Children with a history of domestic violence and physical abuse may be overwhelmed and over-stimulated by raised voices, invasions of their personal space, threatening looks, and aggressive body stances. Derisive or demeaning comments can also be triggers.
Be aware of how you sound when upset and try to soften your voice. Pay attention to any threat you may communicate through your facial expressions, body posture, and movements toward the child. Breathe deeply and give yourself time to decide how to respond to an upsetting behavior before reacting.
If a parent’s behavior triggers a child’s of trauma response, the child’s ability to learn or engage is diminished significantly. During trauma responses, a child’s brain switches to a basic survival mode, a mode in which children are not able to process cognitively, rather, the child processes emotionally or from a sensory perspective.
Connect more than you than correct.
Avoid a focus on punishment or consequences; rather, cultivate an environment of safety, containment, and understanding. If you remain calm, listen to the child’s verbal and non- verbal communication, and accept her emotions, the child may develop enough trust to share her fears. Our role is to be willing to take on and hold the pain and hurts of our child’s trauma history. When we do this, we create the opportunity for connection which precedes correction.
Imagine your child suddenly experiences a meltdown after passing a department store perfume counter. Caught off guard, you start to panic and become acutely aware of all the shoppers staring at your child as he writhes and cries on the floor.
Your task is to set aside your own emotional duress, slow your breathing, and be aware of your pulse. When our pulse rises above 100 beats per minute, we are more likely to speak carelessly. Next, provide your child a safety net of emotional containment. Sit next to him on the floor or hold his hand and calmly assure him that he is safe and that you will protect and never leave him. Do not try to rush him out of the store or make threats if he fails to settle down. What you may not understand is that your child experienced a trauma response, triggered by a scent from the perfume counter. If we only react to the behavior we see as unacceptable, we miss the real issue of his fear and need for us to calm and assure him of our presence no matter what he thinks, feels, or does. Encourage physical activity, hydration, regular snacks, and sleep.
When stressed, our dopamine (a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers) levels fall, and cortisol (the so-called stress hormone) levels rise. To bring levels back to normal, children should eat, move, and drink water at least every two hours. Exercise increases serotonin and dopamine and reverses the damaging effects of depression. Consistently enjoyable and meaningful activity (especially outside in daylight) can improve children’s emotional health substantially.
Outdoor physical activities include swinging, spinning, playing on a jungle gym, somersaults, and horseback riding. Inside, try jumping, rhythmic movement, thera-bands, chewing gum, or playing with Play-Doh, shaving cream, or dry rice. Activities tied to writing, art, music, silence, and touch can also be powerful interventions.
Physical activity also helps children to sleep better. If your child can not sleep, offer a protein snack before bed to control blood sugar levels overnight. Children and adults need adequate sleep to be readyfor the challenges of a new day.
Promote a nurturing environment.
A nurturing environment is one where children feel comfortable and safe. Comfort comes from a predictable schedule, places where the child can escape over-stimulation, foods the child enjoys, positive interactions with family members, opportunities to write or use other creative outlets to express feelings, and knowledge that the family will support the child no matter what.
Nurturing is possible through other senses too. To make the child’s tactile world comfortable, choose soft and non-abrasive clothing. Consider welcoming a furry mammal to the family. The action of stroking a pet lowers blood pressure. On the olfactory front, soaps and other products with citrus scents decrease anxiety while lavender-scented products encourage calmness.
It is not easy: however, as you parent your traumatized child, try not to worry about the future. As children heal, they will be able to think logically and learn. Trust in the process that works best for your child, persevere, and have fun!