Trauma in Children
Why is my 10 year old child wetting the bed at night? Why is my 12 year old child unable to make friends or interact with his/her peers?
Parents are constantly wondering why their children do different things throughout their lives and are analyzing their decisions left and right. As a parent of a six month old, I am always reading and researching the developmental milestones that my child should be hitting each month. We all know that children still wetting the bed at age 10 is not common, and neither is the inability to make friends or maintain healthy relationships. So why do some children do this? There could be many reasons why, but one reason could be trauma. Francine Shapiro’s Adaptive Information Processing model shows us the phenomenon of regression in children when they are exposed to dangerous and/or frightening life experiences due to abuse or neglect. The model explains that traumatic events become stored in separate neural networks in our brains along with emotions, sensations, and perceptions, which are present at the time of the events.
Trauma-related material stored in this way does not process correctly, so it remains isolated in the brain. During the time that the brain is trying to store and process information, the nervous system is working to regulate itself. This is done in three fundamental physiological states: social engagement, fight or flight, and freeze. Stephen Porges, Distinguished University Scientist and Research Professor in Psychiatry, states that our level of safety determines which of the physiological state it will be in. Social engagement is when we feel threatened; we actively seek help from others for comfort and support. Fight or flight is when nobody comes to our aid, and our body begins to revert to protecting itself (fighting or fleeing). Lastly, freeze is when the individual is trapped or held down; the body tries to preserve itself by shutting down and expending as little energy as possible.
Why is this important?
Children who were exposed to chronic abuse or neglect may regress or dissociate back to their younger self, which would explain why they are wetting the bed at night, stealing food, throwing tantrums, talking like a baby, clinging to someone or something, and inability to maintain appropriate relationships. These behaviors can often be triggered during the time of the year, day, month, specific holiday, or even a certain type of person when they experienced the trauma. Their bodies are in the physiological state of fight and flight are hyper-aroused which makes it difficult for them to process information or solve problems.
You may be thinking…
What if the child was removed from the unsafe environment, would they still have the regressive behaviors?
Yes! If the child is exposed to any of their triggers, their brain could subconsciously light up the unprocessed traumatic memory, which causes the child to regress to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that they experienced at the time of the event.
As a parent or the guardian of the child, your first reaction may be to discipline the child; however, this is not the answer. The answer is to seek out therapy to effectively and safely address the possibility of trauma, reduce environmental triggers, and restore the child’s feelings of security and trust with their caregivers. In therapy, we have the skills necessary to help the traumatized child work safely through their feelings and find a new perspective to view their memories.
Lindsey Zimmerman, LMSW