“Imagine a constant flow of cortisol and adrenaline — as if you spend every second of every day being chased by a bear with its claws bared and its teeth dripping with blood. You might be jumpy, flighty, overreative, and unable to sleep, feeling neither hungry nor thirsty, unable to read any of your body’s signals.” If your child is stuck in survival mode, he may feel like the description above (from How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos). Maybe you are stuck in a fear cycle yourself. If any of this applies to you or your children, grab a cup of coffee and join Kathleen for part one of “The Brain and Fear.”
“Love is enough” is a common misconception among parents in general, but even more so with kids who have experienced trauma. Kids who have had trauma seem to have a built-in button-locating radar. They find our buttons and push them over and over. It’s natural that we parents may think they are pushing our buttons or misbehaving to make us mad.
In reality, their behavior stems from early trauma and its effect on them. Most children that come into foster care, orphanages, or other institutions are disorganized in their attachment and stuck in dis-integration. The people who were supposed to care for them hurt them. This sets off a constant warning bell in the brains of these children. We call the result a stress-shaped brain.
Early Life Experience
Early life experience has shaped their brains to expect the worst and be on high alert all the time. This response is known as hypervigilance. The hypervigilant child jerks at every sound. They don’t recognize their body’s own signals of hunger, thirst, and rest.
Normally, parents seamlessly teach regulation. When the child is hungry, the mother feeds him. If he is cold, she wraps him in a blanket. If he is tired, she rocks him to sleep. This pattern continues, with the mother regulating for the child until he begins to regulate for himself. He asks for a drink when he is thirsty. He puts on his sweater when he is cold, or grabs his blankie when he’s ready for bed.
Kids who haven’t had this early regulation don’t know how to regulate. This doesn’t just apply to hunger and thirst, though those are the biggies. It also applies to behavior. Behavior is what we see externally, but it’s not the whole picture. We need to learn to watch the external behaviors as a clue to whether the child can regulate internally or not.
“Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most other challenging experiences of parenting – and life- are a result of a loss of integration, also known as dis-integration.”
– The Whole-Brain Child
Neurons that fire together wire together. In plain English, the more a behavior is acted out or a trigger is acted upon, the more it becomes a pattern in the brain. It is as if the road is dug out, graveled, and paved by repeated experiences. The paved road then becomes the primary travel route.
Adoption is messy. Children who are adopted from hard places have trouble verbalizing their feelings. They struggle with self-regulation and want to control everything and everyone around them. Trouble is, if we parents aren’t careful, we end up focusing on the behavior instead of digging deeper into the root of the problem. It’s quick and easy to think the child is misbehaving to get on our last nerve. We tend to think the child wants to make us angry.
The poor choices in behavior speak what the child is unable to state verbally.
Put Yourself in Your Child’s Shoes
Have you ever been in a situation when you felt anxious or afraid for no apparent or logical reason? Instead of considering a situation your child was in, think of a situation that you have been in. Think of a time when you should have felt safe but instead you felt anxious. Go back to that feeling for a minute, and as terrible as it is, let it wash over you. Imagine feeling like that all the time. That may be how your child is feeling.
Five Bs Affected by Trauma
Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development.
Negative behaviors will be taken care of once a child is securely attached. To achieve that, we must start with the five Bs and work our way out from there. Take a few minutes and read about the Five Bs – start here. Listen to the podcast series on each B. There is a lot of information to read/listen to. Take your time. It will still be available long after this series is over. Maybe start with one B. Armed with this information, write down some of your child’s triggers with this information as your foundation.
I started this series in a response to a question via email. As I said in part 1, I know the answer is complex . It’s not a one-size fits all answer. There are some aspects you can see in a trauma-informed church. There are some things you can feel. There are some words you will hear. There are also some practices that will be followed by all leadership in a trauma-informed church.
It starts with trauma-informed training
I’m one of those people who will chase you down the hall and tell church leaders that they need trauma-training. I’m also one of those people who get the door slammed in their face (metaphorically). Leaders for some reason don’t want to invest in training. They also don’t want to ask their staff and volunteers to go through training. I know. It’s a huge time commitment. It is. It’s also an investment.
The parable of The spilled milk
Let’s say you put an open gallon of milk on the table in your kitchen. You hope it won’t spill. You pray it won’t spill. You light a candle and pray it won’t spill. Then it spills. You sop up the mess and tell the child who knocked it over not to do that again, then you leave the gallon again. It gets spilled again. You tell the child again not to knock the milk. The child knocks it again. You tell the child again. What’s the real problem? The adult didn’t take responsibility to put the cap on and put it away.
I see the the same thing happen in churches, homes, schools, and homeschool co-ops. They pray the milk won’t be spilled. In other words, they hope and pray that kids who have had trauma or capital letter syndromes won’t have meltdowns. The kids do. The adults tell the kids to stop. There are behavior charts, stickers, lectures, and Bible verses hurled at them. They meltdown again. They can’t regulate. What needs to happen? The adults, leaders, and parents need to cap the milk by becoming trauma-informed. When leadership is trauma-informed and begin to lead with this in mind, the milk wont’ spill as often.
Start with the Five Bs
The Five B’s Affected by Trauma
Brain – Children from hard places have altered brain development and an overactive amygdala. It’s as if the child is being chased by a bear all the time.
Biology – Children from hard places have altered neurochemistry.
Body – This could include learning delays, developmental delays, and sensory issues (which may be mistaken for willfulness and defiance). The child may be frustrated and disconnected.
Behavior – The child may have an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors.
“If a child has had trauma, it’s as though his brain has a bunch of loose wires that don’t connect. If I were back in computer programming, I could imagine that for every if-then statement, I would get an error message: ‘Does not compute.’”-
How to Have Peace When Your Kids Are in Chaos
Understanding the effects trauma has on child (or adult) is a start. Some of the church leaders who have emailed me want their churches to be trauma-informed to better serve the needs of the kiddos (and adults) in the body. Some of you are running into the same sorts of road blocks I do. Time. Money. Leaders don’t want to ask their volunteers to have to invest more time, to come out one more night a week, to watch videos, or host a conference. So the milk gets spilled again and again. And the children get reprimanded for being dysregulated because they CANNOT do what’s expected of them.
For those who want Trauma-informed churches, schools, and co-ops
Want to continue the conversation? Hop on over to our podcast page and listen to the series on the Five Bs Affected by Trauma. These are coffee break podcasts, no longer than fifteen minutes each. Share them with the people who serve your kiddos.
If you’re interested in the free e-course- Five Things , click on the graphic below:
I’ve been writing and recording a series on the “Five Bs Affected by Trauma.” You can follow along on the podcast and get your free printable resource here.
“An infant born into neglect learns slightly different lessons. For him, the bonding cycle is short circuited. Instead of experiencing need, high arousal, gratification, and trust in others, he experiences need, high arousal to the point of exhaustion, self-gratification, and trust in self/self-reliance. Eventually this child develops less need, less arousal, more immediate self-gratification, and no involvement with others. He is likely to develop habits to gratify himself that may include rocking, head banging, sucking on his hands, hair pulling, etc.. He may grow up detached from others, appearing vacant and empty. He has few emotions and desires no interaction from others, even acting if no others are present in a room.
He has effectively learned that he can —- and needs—– to trust himself.”- Adopting the Hurt Child
One of the most visible effects of trauma is how is how it affects the body – medically, through sensory processing issues, or detachment.
Humanism tells us that everything is done by the power of a man. It teaches that man is able to sustain himself without God, without the Spirit. Studies on attachment beg to differ. Man is not sufficient on his own. He can not sustain body, soul, and spirit alone. The spirit of the child vacates when there is no attachment.
“Infants deprived of their mothers during the first year of life for more than five months deteriorate progressively. They become lethargic, their motility retarded, their weight and growth arrested. Their face becomes vacuous; their activity is restricted to atypical, bizarre finger movements. they are unable to sit, stand, walk or talk.”- Rene Spitz M.D.
Children who have been traumatized in infancy and early childhood cannot be expected to behave or respond to stimuli in the same way as children who have not.
Body –altered physical development and impacted ability to process sensory inputs.
Dr. Dana Johnson has described developmental delays and growth disturbances as one month of linear growth loss for every three months that children remain in an orphanage.
What we see in the physical are:
inability to process sensory inputs.
I’ve been writing and recording a series on the the five bs affected by trauma. You can follow along on the podcast and get your free printable resource here.
Sensory Issues- may be mistaken for willfulness and defiance, may up frustrated and disconnected.
Sensory over responsivity- OH NO!- you touch him on the elbow and he flies off the handle.
Sensory under responsivity – Ho Hum…. The child reacts less intensely to stimuli than other children. Slumps.