We have been discussing how children (and adults) react to trauma. If we placed these reactions on a continuum, we would have a dissociative reaction opposing a hyper-arousal reaction. Consequently, a child who is traumatized may be highly energized or highly withdrawn.
The continuum of traumatic reactions in children
Once again, I turn to the research and writings of Dr. Bruce Perry for a description of these reactions to trauma exploring both ends of the continuum.
When childhood trauma results in dissociative reactions
- When in an arousal state, the child is more likely to be avoidant as opposed to reacting with a normal vigilant response.
- When alarmed, he/she is more likely to comply as opposed to reacting with a more normal freeze response.
- When becoming fearful, he/she may dissociate as opposed to reacting with a more normal flight response.
- When terrorized, he/she may faint rather than react with a more normal fight response.
When childhood trauma results in hyper-arousal reactions
- When in an arousal state, the child is more likely to have a highly vigilant response as opposed to having a normal vigilant response.
- When alarmed, he/she is more likely to be resistant as opposed to having a more normal freeze response.
- When becoming fearful, he/she may be defiant as opposed to having a more normal flight response.
- When terrorized, he/she may become very aggressive rather than have a more normal fight response.
- Children whose baseline states are normally set at a higher level will react as if they are in danger even though they are not.
Additional facts about traumatic reactions
Also consider these additional important facts of how children react to traumatic situations.
- Traumatized children react a full level higher than is considered normal. They are operating in a lower brain level (limbic system) and are less able to think (operate in their cortex).
- When traumatized children are not able to think rationally, they are more tuned into nonverbal cues. They are less able to focus, concentrate, problem-solve, create, have judgment.
- The more someone “yells” or insists that they think, the more threatened traumatized children feel and the less able they are to move into their cortex.
- When traumatized children are asked to do something they perceive as challenging or complex, the task itself can be experienced as threatening and can influence a shift into a lower brain state and a higher arousal state.
It is clear that children who have been traumatized act and react very differently than children who have not experienced trauma. It is important that those of us who are caregivers for children be attuned and aware of these possible reactions and alert to the impact of trauma. This knowledge will help us better evaluate why children are doing what they are doing and may lead us to provide help for them to heal from the impact of trauma.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008. All rights reserved. Licensed materials.