Early childhood trauma is well established as the major contributor to disrupted neurological and behavioural development in children. The inevitable outcome from the abuse and/or neglect that creates this trauma is a child whose repertoire of behaviours coupled with an adverse cognitive construction limits their ability to engage in our classrooms on an equal footing. Although there is a recognition that these children do suffer from a ‘mental health' disability there remains a reluctance to embrace these kids with the same compassion as those whose disability is more visible and less offensive.
But what constitutes trauma? (The term ‘trauma’ is also used in the medical field to describe an assault on the physical body, but for this work, we are discussing psychological trauma) The short answer is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience or a negative event that is painful and overwhelms a person’s ability to cope.
The three conditions where trauma can occur are:
Shattered Expectations – We all have a belief that things will be OK in the future. We live on an ideal beach with the surf lapping at our front door – then a tsunamis hits and your family has washed away; you're driving home from work and you’re hit by a truck that is out of control.
These events and countless other potential disasters, if experienced, force you to accept that a single person has no real control over natural forces. Most of us will never have to face such events but for those who do the resulting stress levels leads straight to trauma!
Human Vulnerability – All our life we wake with an expectation that we will live through the day and repeat this process over and over. We fail to see the fragility of our bodies and the tenuous grip we have on life. However, if you witness an unexpected death, a road accident, murder, industrial accident or perhaps the onset of a fatal disease you become fully exposed to the reality of death and how helpless we are to prevent it. If you have ever seen such an event, you will understand the trauma that surrounds it. Imagine working in an area such as a war zone or the scene of a natural disaster, this human vulnerability is reinforced time and time again. It's little wonder soldiers, police, rescue workers, etc. are highly likely to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress.
The Human Capacity for Evil - History is full of major events that illustrate our capacity for evil. The holocausts, Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia and the countless war crimes reported throughout history all confirm that humans are capable of a level of ‘evil’ behaviour that is rare in any other species.
Such malevolent actions are not limited to these large-scale examples, go to any emergency ward in any public hospital, and you will see children, women and male victims who have been beaten for no reason than to satisfy some wicked person’s desire.
The reality that some humans do not share a capacity for kindness, tolerance and a fair-go shatters the belief system we depend on and when we witness extreme malevolence we become traumatized.
The types of trauma that tend to have the greatest adverse psychological consequences are those related to interpersonal or intentional trauma. These include childhood abuse and neglect.
But identifying these underpinnings of trauma do not appear to be relevant when discussing the trauma of young children. Their cognitive development would make any real comprehension of the conditions outlined above almost irrelevant. So, what are the conditions that traumatize kids?
This is a difficult area, what will traumatize an infant is different from say a two-year-old, this difference reflects the variation in their social/intellectual development. I have attempted to create a crude model that illustrates the differences. I have put these into stages. However, the underpinning feature is the shattered sense of safety.
Stage 1. Infancy
Traumatic factors will include frightening visual stimulation, loud, unexpected noise, being hurt or abandoned. The child's increased stress levels are a response to the fear of ‘death' even though they are incapable of that concept. For them, ‘death' is the removal of support.
Stage 2. Early Childhood
The initial conditions still apply, but now the reliance on relationships becomes a more significant factor. Children, who are abused by primary care-givers not only suffer the trauma of that abuse they also interpret that as a complete rejection from the very person they rely on for survival. Because they are intensely ego-centric that rejection must be because they are ‘bad’. This is the foundation of their sense of toxic shame.
There is also the situation when they see their mother beaten. Mum represents life and when that is threatened the child suffers trauma. Some research contends that seeing mum beaten does more damage than being hit their self. Bizarrely, they will believe they deserve to be punished but not their mum. Seeing their siblings abused continues this trend of helplessness in the face of evil.
There was a time when people believed that because their ‘memories' had not developed that the children would not suffer long-term consequences from the abuse and resulting trauma. This idea that there is no impact could not be further from the truth. Early childhood is the most vulnerable time for children and those who visit abuse or neglect on children at this time in their life are creating the maximum psychological scar possible.