Gender Differences in Dealing with Early Childhood Trauma
In the last Newsletter we discussed the different reactions to abuse depending on whether the perpetration was consistent and persistent or if it was chaotic and unpredictable in both the probability and the method. In the case of the consistent abuse children learned behaviours that could protect them and this feeling of control often allowed them to appear very functional in the classroom. However, these kids still need to embrace the environmental changes that would nourish them rather than hide in those behaviours that protected them in the past. Unlike those kids whose behaviour is ‘out of control’ all to often they appear to be very successful in the classroom and do not attract the attention of the teacher.
There is another group of students who are never recognised as being in need of additional attention and these are predominantly girls who dissociate when subjected to extreme abuse. Of course, this delineation is not exclusive as are any generalisations based on gender but there is currently a real difference in the way most adolescent girls and boys respond to elevated levels of stress!
The graph shown below is based on the work of Bruce Perry a legend in the field of childhood trauma. (the following description is from my book Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids).
When we consider the process of increasing levels of stress that are the result of an attack on our safety we experience the following cognitive conditions:
- Arousal – This occurs when a child’s attention is drawn to a potential threat. Under these conditions the student will become vigilant and will lose access to that curiosity that examines alternative ideas but focuses on conditioned behaviours. If the goal of the lesson is to learn new material or new behaviours, when stress is heightened the opportunity to be taught is gone because the student will only acknowledge established beliefs.
- Alarm – The emotional level has increased and the cognitive patterns are ‘frozen’ into a particular response. There is a broad gender difference in that the girls become compliant in an attempt to avoid attention while the boys start to actively resist the threat.
- Fear – At this stage the student reacts to the threat. The behaviours are out of the control of any cognitive process. The girls will start to dissociate, numb themselves from the situation while the boys will become defiant.
- Terror – At this level everything becomes reflexive, under the control of our basic survival modes of behaviour. The girls will experience a mini episode of psychosis while the boys will become actively aggressive.
There are two points to make at this time. The first is obvious; it is clear that the only feeling state where ‘new learning’ can take place is that of ‘calm’. Previously we discussed stress in terms of healthy and unhealthy kinds. We need a certain level of attention to learn new work but in this instance the arousal is directed at a potential threat.
The second point to be made is the difference between the gender responses. The following comments are in the broadest terms. Of course, there are obvious exceptions to these observations some males respond in a way we would expect a female to respond and vice versa.
Initially it could be thought that the difference is cultural, girls and boys have been taught to behave that way. We give boys aggressive toys and girls things like dolls and toy kitchens to prepare them for their future roles. Or maybe we just see what we expect to see, boys being boys and girls being girls.
But when you look at the school level data around abuse and dysfunctional behaviour, despite the incidents for abuse being higher for girls than boys the number of boys being suspended or placed in a specialist setting far outweighs that of girls. The boys act out while the girls internalize. The reality is there is a difference that is impossible to ignore.
The best explanation I have heard about this difference is an evolutionary view that in early times, once humans generally became the dominant species one of the greatest threats for survival was attack from another tribe. When this occurred, the victors would kill the males and take the children as trophies. Sadly, this practice has echoes in modern conflicts where atrocities such as the killings in Bosnia were predominantly of males and the recent incidents of the abduction of school girls in Africa reflect this difference.
When you examine the suspension data in schools, the boys do outnumber the girls across the age ranges but at the onset of puberty, the time we move from childhood the number of boys suspended for aggressive behaviour dramatically increases. This implies that for the best chance of survival the children of both genders; women would become compliant and the men fight or flight. Not always were male children taken in some instances they were also killed. This behaviour is not confined to our species; it is common practice in a lot of herding animals such as the great apes and lions.
One of the tragedies of this ‘difference’ is that despite suffering more abuse the girls are neglected. Because the boys’ behaviour demands attention the bulk of the resources provided for dysfunctional students are focused on dealing with boys. As a teacher a compliant girl, frozen in her mind is so much easier to deal with then a boy who is abusing you. However, both boys and girls are in serious need of attention and support but only boys get it.
With the caveat declared about levels of stress when discussing the protective response to abuse, that is we need a ‘healthy’ amount of stress to act at all, the impact on our cognitive skills of elevated stress levels while seeking resources is comparative to those of protective behaviour in the production of dysfunctional behaviour.
There is a growing recognition of the need for teachers to recognise students who have suffered early childhood trauma and it is our hope that these Newsletters assist in you recognising those who in the past have slipped quietly through their school years never engaging and always hiding. However, it is really critical that any therapeutic intervention is only carried out by professional mental health practitioners. We are teachers and the best we can do is provide the environment that allows these kids an opportunity to experience a calm and supportive existence.