How does trauma affect behaviour, relationships, learning, thinking, feeling and doing?
Trauma impacts relationships because when someone they know has hurt them, either on purpose or because they were nearby when an awful thing happened such as abuse or violence. The child is left with questions and confusions around trust. When a child is around events or relationships that make them feel scared, they can end up not being sure who to trust and feel confused about how to relate to adults or other chidren and this can lead to other problems like loneliness or isolation or bullying or worse still, being exploited.
Trauma impacts the childs emotions because they don’t have enough internal ‘space’ to hold all the negative feelings that they feel. They don’t know what to do with these feelings and they end up ‘leaking’ their feelings by behaving in ways that even disappoint them at first. This negative behaviour, which is actually a way of communicating that they need help, often causes them to get labeled as defiant, bad or naughty and then they often get treated as if they are naughty or bad. This can makes them feel bad inside and rejected and worthless. They can lose the ability to see their gifts or talents and just see themselves as others see them because of their behaviour.
The feelings of low self esteem can lead to feelings of depression or anxiety. A child may end up trying so hard to prove that they are good and worth loving that they become perfectionists or they may just act up to the label and get naughtier and naughtier.
As they get older they could end up self harming or engaging in dangerous activities to take risks because they feel so numb and sad inside. Drugs and alcohol can be tempting because they give highs and or numb the internal pain. The world can be too scary and rejecting so a world full of drink and drugs can be more tolerable but actually, of course, leads to further complications. They can often hide their vulnerability by acting angry or tough or like they don’t care. But they do. It’s just another way of protecting themselves because they are so used to be being rejected and mistreated, so they can rarely trust someone enough to show them how scared or sad they feel. Gangs could be appealing as a place to belong with others who act tough as they can have a sense of community.
It can be hard to get out a cycle of trauma because once its happened, the emotional response can be so strong that unless adults help the child, they can behave in ways that then lead to other behaviours that further impact on relationships, learning, self esteem, and an understanding of the world and future decisions. They could ‘act out’ which is visible to the adults or ‘act in’ where feelings of sadness build up and internal coping mechanisms form and become habitual.
Children and young people are dependent on adults understanding this and offering skilled and effective support to enable them to break the trauma cycle and process their strong feelings.
It is recognised that ‘trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering’ (Levine & Kline, 2007, p.3). Yet there is now evidence that shows us that unprocessed trauma can lead to increased mental health difficulties during adulthood and a host of social problems, such as drug use, school failure, anti- social behaviour etc. It can also lead to other problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), conduct disorders, and dissociative disorders, and unprocessed trauma can also lead to medical challenges, such as asthma and heart disease (Perry & Szalavitz, 2011).
When trauma is processed in the context of a warm and genuine relationship, the impact is minimalised if not altogether transformed into greater resilience, thus changing the impact on the child and their future.
Anyone who has experienced trauma can be triggered by anything that is linked in their subconscious to their trauma experience, and this can cause a threat response (when the lower, reptilian brain sends an alarm reaction to the emotion brain and thinking goes ‘off line) as if there is a real risk of danger or death. Common triggers are sensory related, for example sounds, sights, feelings and smells, or thoughts such as ‘you’re going to reject me’. In a school setting, a child who responds with a brainstem, survival response, by kicking, screaming, running or hiding, would often be expected to immediately discuss the reasons for their behaviour with a teacher. However, the usual cognitive abilities of the child would not be available due to the overwhelming response of the brainstem; their thinking, cognitive, intelligent, rational brain response is ‘off line’, as is their ability to access speech and language.
When adults understand that a child is unable to respond with rational, mature thinking from their thinking brain (pre-frontal cortex) because their brain is still pumping chemicals that are responding to the threat, then that adult can respond with greater patience and empathy, which in turn helps a child feel safer and recover faster. When children feel calm and safe, they can focus their energy on learning. Children who are dealing with trauma are often in a chronic state of crisis and fear, and can be in a continual state of threat response; their focus is on trying to feel ‘OK’ or normal not on learning information that seems irrelevant to survival.
Trauma impacts a person’s behaviour, emotions, relationships and future.