Early Childhood Trauma
In the last Newsletter we discussed the features of stress which results from an imbalance between our needs and the availability of conditions within our environment to get those needs satisfied. This is the mission of all biological creatures, to live in a safe and secure environment, we are no different. However, if we experience a life-threatening situation and we are unable to defend ourselves the extreme levels of stress generated are not launched, the body is captured in a fight/flight readiness with the accompanying physiological changes. This inability to discharge these energies to act means we remain in a state of ‘readiness’. This is the embodiment of trauma.
In its pure state the essence of trauma can be summarized as follows:
- The stability of life based on a steady expectation of what will happen has been shattered
- The victim has come face to face with their own vulnerability in the natural world; they can die or become extremely injured
- The victim has come face to face with the capacity for evil in human nature, their trust in the goodness of others is shattered
Childhood trauma, usually understood to be from birth to age six has a distinct set of features that have a profound impact on a child. In these years the child has not developed the behaviours to protect themselves by fighting, hardly an option or fleeing and so they are much more vulnerable (they can freeze, that is, dissociate which will be discussed later). The importance of their carer becomes another factor in the severity of childhood trauma.
In one instance it may be that the parent whose own survival is threatened becomes unavailable to protect the child and so they feel abandoned. For example a child witnessing an assault on say their mother will become extremely traumatised as she is their connection to survival. Contrary to this tragic experience is when the malevolent acts of abuse unloaded onto the child by that caregiver or authority figure. The very person they rely on to survive is trying to ‘kill’ them. It is unwise to compare any psychological experiences but we can’t help thinking this latter practice is the most-evil form of abuse!
The results of prolonged stress are most tragic if the threats are present under the following conditions:
- Caused by human actions directed at the child
- Continually repeated, the abuse never seems to cease
- Unpredictable, there is no warning the attack is coming
- Multifaceted, the same technique of delivering the threat is not repeated
- Sadistic, there is a sense of real cruelty
And to re-emphasise the final and perhaps the most menacing feature of a child’s trauma is when their primary caretaker is responsible for it.
Another feature of childhood trauma is that it takes place at a time when the development of both the physiology of the brain and the belief systems are at their most emergent. The significance of this has been detailed in a previous Newsletter (The Early Years and Dysfunctional Behaviour - Monday, February 14, 2022). At this time we outlined the physical damage persistent and chronic stress does to the brain but because these are so profound they will be reproduced below.
• The Amygdala, which is sensitive to fear is increased in size which makes the child very anxious.
• The hippocampus is reported to have a 12% reduction in size which impacts on their ability to comprehend incoming stimulus and the formation of memories.
• Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface. It is in this area of the brain, often referred to as ‘the executive’ where complex decisions are made.
• Cerebellum which is the area of the brain that evaluates the potential of danger or opportunity in the environment in relation to needs is reduced in size becoming more inefficient.
• Reduced efficacy of the corpus callosum, that is the coordination between the brain’s hemispheres is compromised.
It needs to be remembered that this is real physical damage to a child’s brain that results more often than not from the actions of a malevolent adult at a time when they are incapable of any defence against such abuse!
In the classroom you don’t get to see this damage but you will have to deal with the behaviours that are underpinned by it. The major responses to all trauma, including children are as follows:
- Vivid flashbacks of events
- False memories
- Conscious or subconscious avoidance of situations that produce associated stress
- Enduring vigilance for, and sensitivity to, environmental ‘threats’
A more detailed description of the behavioural consequences of these responses are dealt with in detail in Chapter 3 of our book ‘Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids’ which is reproduced in the Resource Section of our Web Page Frew Consultants Group.
The responses described above are broad descriptions of the impact early childhood trauma has on a victim. How these characteristics are expressed is very individualised but the table below provides a useful summary of the expressions of early childhood PTSD.
Infants & Lower Primary
Upper Primary & Secondary
- Feel helpless and uncertain
- Fear being separated from parent/caregiver
- Cry and/or scream a lot
- Eat poorly and lose weight
- Return to bedwetting
- Return to using baby talk
- Develop new fears
- Have nightmares
- Recreate the trauma through play
- Are not developing to the next growth stage
- Have a change in behaviour
- Ask questions about death
- Become anxious and fearful
- Worry about their own or others’ safety
- Become clingy with a teacher or a parent
- Feel guilt or shame
- Tell others about the traumatic event again and again
- Become upset if they get a bump or bruise
- Have hard time concentrating
- Experience numbness
- Have fear the event will happen again
- Have difficulties sleeping
- Show changes in school performance
- Become easily startled
- Feel depressed and alone
- Discuss the traumatic events in detail
- Develop eating disorders and self-harming behaviours such as cutting
- Start using or abusing alcohol or drugs
- Become sexually active
- Feel like they’re going crazy
- Feel different from everyone else
- Take too many risks
- Have sleep disturbances
- Don’t want to go to places that remind them of the event
- Say they have no feeling about the event
- Show changes in behaviour
Source: The Centre for Child Trauma Assessment, Services and Interventions
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences
Northwestern University - Chicago
In the next Newsletter we will discuss early childhood trauma and how it effects the child’s sense of self, how they come to the class in a sense already failing and following this will be the implications for the teacher.
However, more than anything the teacher will have to overcome some personal difficulties when dealing with these children. It is important that the teacher:
- Does not become critical and/or controlling
- Understands the difficulty the student is experiencing.
- Is not to be drawn into the role – ‘playing the part’ of who the student wants them to be.
- Remain involved, listening and persist with the child.
Students with early childhood trauma have rarely had positive experiences in forming healthy relationships. Addressing this is the key to dealing with these kids but it is only one part of our approach which requires structure and expectations to support these relationships.