Trauma – this powerful word, describing the some of the most vulnerable moments in a person’s life – has in recent years, started to draw attention. We are beginning to understand the far-reaching impact that experiences of profound terror have on a persons mind, body, and heart. Becoming aware the impacts of trauma is, simply, really important when providing care, educating, or in any way supporting an individual who has been impacted by trauma. Through understanding, we can develop a deeper understanding of the unpredictable and sometimes challenging patterns of behaviour that often occurring following a trauma or during the time an individual is healing.
There was a time, not so long ago, where it was assumed that if a child could not remember a traumatic event, then they were fine, exposure to a traumatic event would not shift their developmental trajectory. This is far from true; our body remembers what our brain does not. Experiences of trauma leave an imprint on our lives in ways we may not even be aware of, shifting perceptions of safety in the world and within relationships. Needless to say, this is big important stuff.
We are now aware of the significant impacts that trauma in childhood, especially in early childhood, can have on a child’s development (if you have not read The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry, check it out). Exposure to ongoing experiences of trauma during childhood shifts how the brain develops. The brain is going to grow in ways that will ensure our survival – we are adaptable creatures with a fundamental drive towards survival – our brains will make sure we survive. But there is quite a big difference between living and surviving, between being able to feel safe and play, and not knowing which version of your caregiver is going to greet you after school.
Experiences of trauma, at their core, are unpredictable. If we knew they were coming we would not experience them in the same way. But this is not the case, the presentation of behaviour following trauma can also be unpredictable, making supporting children who have experienced trauma tricky. There are moments where you can feel like things are getting on track and then you blink and it is like you are almost back to where you started again. The child you are supporting has regressed, had a meltdown, or withdrawn back into themself again. Supporting those who have been impacted by trauma is not quick or easy work. It takes patience, persistence, and more patience.
It is no easy task to walk alongside a child while they heal. Experience of trauma are going to affect every person differently, sometimes this walk may be short, other times it may seem like it will never end. But what happens if we do nothing, if we do not support this child in healing their unseen wounds? The ACE Studies (Adverse Childhood Experiences) examined eight experiences of adversity that a child may experience – being physically, sexually, or emotionally abused; witnessing domestic violence and parental discord; and growing up with mentally ill, substance-abusing, or criminal household members – 17 337 American adults were surveyed. It was found that the presence of two or more ACE’s resulted in an increased likelihood in developing medical issues (i.e. heart, lung, and liver disease), individuals were more likely to smoke, abuse drugs and alcohol, and experience obesity and mental health challenges. Trauma can have a far-reaching, long lasting impact on every single part of us. And we have an opportunity to shift this, we can support the little people in our lives to experiencing the world as a bit safer then they perceive it to be, to knowing kindness, and experiencing moments of connection and joy.
So what do we do? How do we help? It is clear that it is important. In whatever role you are in; caregiver, teacher, social worker, support person, grandparent, neighbour, coach – you have the opportunity to become a safe place for a child. A person that can be like a lighthouse, consistently guiding them towards safety, no matter how big or overwhelming the storm may be. To be this lighthouse, this place of safety, there are a few good places to start. We first must take care of ourselves, we need to ensure that we are stable in order to provide that stability for a child. Second, prioritize connection – when a child feels connected, seen, and important, they will be in a place where they can learn, where they can take in the information necessary to shift their perception of safety. Third, patience – healing anything takes time – it does not happen over night. It will take longer than you think. And finally, hold onto to hope. When we begin to lose hope, we sink into the trauma, it overrides us, and if we cannot see out of it, how will a child? So hope, hang onto it tight, growth does happen.
Authored by Morgan Bissegger