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How Can I Tell if My Child Has Trauma Effects?
You hear a great deal about trauma in the news these days, and you wonder if your child is showing the signs of having been traumatized. It’s often hard to tell if the trauma is having ongoing effects on your child or if it was even traumatic to him at all! Here are some examples of trauma and the signs of their effects:
The most traumatic event for a child is the death of, or removal from, a parent. Due to the internal imperative to survive, the child is biologically wired to connect with her parent, and if that connection is broken, even at birth, the signs of trauma can be seen. But not in every single case. Some children are adopted at birth or later, and never show signs of trauma. Some who are adopted at birth feel the separation deeply.
If the connection to the parent is broken by physical abuse on the part of the parent or other adult, the effects are also significant, and trauma signs are likely to be evident. Physical abuse is spanking, hitting, choking, restraining for long periods, burning, cutting, and more. It’s hard to think that a parent would ever do such things to a child, but when a parent has mental illness or a chemical addiction, the urge to protect the child or avoid harming her is dampened or obliterated, and impulse control goes out the window. The child does nothing to provoke this, although the parent will insist that she does. It’s the parent’s lack of restraint that leads to physical abuse.
Similarly, sexual abuse will bring signs of trauma. Again, it’s never the child’s doing that brings on the abuse, but the parent will insist that he or she caused it somehow. It’s very likely that the adult has deep pain which is causing the sexual abuse, and also that the adult has been abused as a child. This is why sexual abuse is so horrific. It makes a criminal out of the victim. Sexual abuse profoundly confuses loyalty to the adult with sexual involvement, and can have lifelong effects on the child’s ability to form a healthy sexual relationship. There is no form of sexual interaction with a child that is OK. Hugging, kissing, massaging, and washing are all part of normal child raising, but touching of genitals for pleasure – either the child touching the adult or the adult touching the child, is abuse. Showing pornography to children or photographing them in sexual positions or without clothing is also sexual abuse.
Emotional/psychological abuse is particularly damaging to a child. The reason this type of abuse (which is also often present with physical and sexual abuse) is so hard to identify and treat is that there are no outward signs of the abuse. In fact, the way systems operate, the abuser is often not stopped, as the law depends on physical findings to prosecute. Emotional abuse, in the form of blaming children for everything that “goes wrong”, accusing them of things they didn’t do, playing mind games with them, calling them names such as stupid, filthy, unwanted (and worse) has more impact that physical abuse on the future mental health of the child. It’s insidious, hidden where it cannot be healed, in far too many cases.
Neglect is also highly traumatizing for children. It conveys to the child that he or she is not worthy of parental care, which can go deep into the psychological landscape to create feelings of lack and low self-esteem. Physical neglect, emotional neglect, medical neglect, educational neglect, and exposure to violence are all types of trauma.
What are the signs that a child has had the trauma of abuse?
Children who have experienced trauma often have difficulty trusting others. When they look to their caregivers as infants or at any age, really, and they don’t get their emotional and physical needs met, their brains undergo a change that involves not being able to trust. This is not a choice, it’s a physiological response. Once the child touches that hot stove of connection that results in being abandoned, he or she is wired not to touch it again.
Other ways that trauma shows up are: decreased mental ability and memory, lack of “executive functioning” which means they have trouble remembering their homework, remembering to hand it in, organizing their rooms, backpacks or desks, and planning ahead. Constant anxiety is another sign of trauma, as are bed-wetting, lying, stealing, and emotional outbursts for no logical reason. Sensory sensitivities are also frequently seen in children with traumatic histories. Visual, auditory, smell, touch, and taste input is felt as 1,000 times stronger than for those without trauma. Another one is “interpersonal sensitivity” where a child is hyper-reactive to the presence of others. Sensory seeking can also be a sign of trauma, particularly with sexual abuse. These children are absolutely compelled to replay the sexual scene, all on an unconscious level.
The purpose of this article is to highlight the signs of trauma, often also referred to as “stuck grief” for all the missed nurturing the child has experienced. The next article will offer tips for helping the traumatized child overcome the effects of trauma.
For help with this or any other parenting issue: click here.
To order the book: “Present Moment Parenting: The Guide to a Peaceful Life with Your Intense Child” with chapters on help for parents of children with trauma, by Tina Feigal, Amelia Franck Meyer, and Mechele Pitt, click here.
To download the audio book of “Present Moment Parenting: The Guide to a Peaceful Life with Your Intense Child, click here.
How to Parent Well When You Have Your Own Emotional “Stuff”
Parents often wonder if they can actually be good for their kids when they are carrying emotional baggage from their own childhoods. They think, “How do I parent this child well when I have my own emotional stuff?” It’s a legitimate question, and I’d like to answer it from the perspective of having coached a powerful man who conquered a hard upbringing to connect, and connect well, with his grandson.
Adam was raised in a situation where his own parents didn’t take care of him, and he needed to live with other adults. The understandable resentment for this was a part of the ongoing landscape of his emotional world. And (who knows how this happens?) during his first marriage he became the step-grandpa to a now-12-year-old boy, fully responsible for him after the tragic and untimely death of his wife. When I met this fabulous grandpa, he was remarried to an absolute saint, Gretchen, who had never had children. Together, they were raising a boy who has two living parents, neither of whom took responsibility for him. Anyone who knows kids understands that this is an extremely difficult situation for a child … having two ambivalently attached parents causes mountains of questions. Why don’t they live with me and care for me? What did I do wrong to cause them to reject me? Why don’t they make it better when it seems as if they could? Why do they keep messing up? And it also results in (again, understandable) acting out that would try even the most patient adult. Yelling, screaming, pounding, refusing, swearing, leaving the house … you name it. Adam and his beloved Gretchen fielded all of this from Graydon with Herculean grace (and yes, some rough arguments).
Adam repeatedly came to me with his own questions about how to make life better at home. And as he did this, he listened intently, even at times struggling with his own deep emotions, wanting to control the boy so he didn’t remind him so much of himself. But the boy would not be controlled by the typical, “Do as I say” approach. This led to a lot of conflict.
As our time together progressed, I watched as Adam learned to put his own emotions on the shelf, not always, but often effectively enough to build a strong bond between himself and Graydon. He set limits, which was often painful for both Adam and his grandson. He created and held healthy boundaries between Graydon and his non-custodial dad and mom. He spoke of respect, instilled values, and stayed the course. He skied with Graydon, threw the ball with him, and asked him about his homework. He limited video game use and access to the phone. He encouraged friendships and facilitated outings and sleep-overs with his middle school buddies. He took Graydon on trips to see unexplored parts of the country. He sat in the stands at his basketball and baseball games, and taught him about teamwork. When he heard the coach compliment Graydon, he was sure to let him know. He accompanied his grandson to therapy appointments to help him feel safe to talk about his feelings. On my advice, he even wrote notes to Graydon, expressing the positive things that were sometimes hard to say between “guys”, but were huge in their impact. He spent special time with him every evening before bed, connecting with Graydon on an emotional level, even if they’d had a bad day. All this, with his own wounded childhood, his own feelings of rejection and anger, lurking in the background. For his grandson’s sake, he dug deep regularly, and simply put Graydon first.
I found myself in awe, wondering where he got the inner strength to parent this often rebellious, oppositional child with such love. We hear about children’s resilience in the literature, but who ever talks about grandparents’ resilience? Who makes a big deal of someone like Adam who wrestled with his demons regularly and emerged the hero for Graydon, teaching him by example that he could be better the next time?
It’s an honor to share this story. I write it as I prepare to attend Adam’s utterly untimely memorial service. Yesterday he died at age 57 with much love left to give. Adam inspired me, and I will forever feel blessed, having known him at his finest, even in the hardest moments. Graydon got the message of love from Adam, not perfectly, not every minute, but he got it. And that’s what it takes for a child to grow up emotionally healthy – one truly caring adult who, through his love, frees you up to do, and be, your best.
Parent coaching info is available at www.parentingmojo.com/parent-coaching.