In South Africa we are continually exposed to violence and other traumas that we have become desensitised to them and do not always realise when an event might be traumatic to a child. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (2013) gives an outline that defines a traumatic event as a real or perceived threat towards a person’s life, safety or health.
However, what we as adults perceive to be a threat to our life, safety or health will differ from what a child perceives. This means that sometimes due to desensitisation and our own perception of trauma we can miss when a child feels they have experienced a trauma. When this happens we are not properly equipped to help them process the trauma.
Once parents realise that their child might be traumatised, a common reaction is to try and ‘forget’ that the incident has happened. This can be done by not mentioning or talking about the incident, not bringing up topics, people or places that remind the child of the trauma and focusing on telling the child to think positively and continue to engage with their daily activities. This does not help the child. Many parents worry that if their child goes to counselling or talks about the incident that it will make it worse for the child because now the child has to think about it again; they should rather forget it. When we understand how trauma is processed in the brain we will see that ‘forgetting and moving on’ is not as simple as it sounds.
When we experience a threatening event, our amygdala is put on high alert. The amygdala is the fear centre in the brain. It tells the body to release hormones that put the body in a fight or flight state. This state will help us survive the event. When the amygdala is on high alert the hippocampus does not work as well (Perry, 2016). The hippocampus helps us put experiences into our long term memory. If this process is disrupted by an overactive amygdala then it may seem as if the event is happening over and over again whenever we think of it. Once the amygdala reduces its actions the hippocampus can move the experience into memory. Sometimes this happens naturally and no intervention is needed. However, sometimes the
amygdala gets stuck in an overactive state. When this happens an intervention is needed; this intervention is facilitated by a counsellor or therapist. We can see that there are biological shifts in the brain that we have no control over when we experience a trauma. So ‘forgetting and moving on’ may not be possible without assistance.
Another thing we must keep in mind when thinking about traumatised children is that their symptoms may not resemble symptoms that we associate with trauma. Their symptoms are often linked to how they behave and commonly get confused with ‘bad behaviour’. Young children’s cognitive processing does not operate on the same abstract level as adults. Children understand their world in a far more concrete or tangible way. They do not always have the words to express how they are feeling or why they are feeling that way; so their expression manifests in their behaviour. Aggression, withdrawal from friends or previously enjoyed activities, hyper arousal or hyper activity, nightmares, imaginative play that revolves around similarities of the trauma are all possible behaviours suggesting the child is traumatised. For example, if a child has experienced a near kidnapping they may want to play games where the stealing or saving of a child is evident. Often children will ‘act out’ and not listen to instructions or talk back, it may seem like they are throwing tantrums for no reason and being generally difficult or being very clingy. These are ways that children express this overwhelmingly scary feeling inside them.
When a child comes to therapy for a trauma related issue, a qualified practitioner can help reduce the amygdala’s action and facilitate the process of putting the event into long term memory. At the same time they are contained and made to feel safe. This is not a process that they have to experience on their own. Family support will assist make our children feel heard and contained. Talking about the incident in a safe space helps the hippocampus and will not be bad for the child. If your child wants to talk to you about what has happened to them, you need to listen to them.
Trauma seems to be a daily occurrence in our lives; by being aware of how we and our children are perceiving the events around us, we will be able to ensure that no one lives with the crippling effects of trauma without assistance.
By Amy Pieterse