Children’s Reactions to Trauma: Part I

In my last post, I discussed the five brain states as identified by Dr. Bruce Perry. These brain states indicate which parts of the brain are primarily in control at any given point in time. How would they look in a developing brain? What do they mean to a child who has suffered trauma?

How might a child react to trauma?

scary mom with child
When terrorized and responding reflexively, a person is primarily in the brainstem.

Let’s review the brain states and think about them in terms of which area of the brain is in control for the corresponding brain state.

Keeping these states, responses and brain locations in mind, when we see children or adults who are living in chronic fear, we might think they are experiencing a reaction to a traumatic episode(s) in their lives. Being mindful of these states helps us better understand unusual or destructive childrens’ behaviors as we see occur at home, school or in the community.

An altered sense of time

Frightened child
Children or adults may experience an altered sense of time depending on which brain state is resident.

Children or adults may experience an altered sense of time depending on which brain state is resident. Realizing this can be especially helpful when parents, teachers or other caregivers are responding to a child’s misbehavior or aggressive or dissociative reactions. It may also help us appreciate when it might be a good time to talk about something occurring in the future. Below is an explanation regarding an time and brain states.

  • When calm, a person can think far into the future.
  • When aroused, a person can think in terms of weeks to days.
  • When alarmed, a person can think in terms of hours to minutes.
  • When fearful, a person can think in terms of minutes to seconds.
  • When terrorized, there can be a loss of any sense of time.

Use this information to understand rather than judge

We frequently struggle with childrens’ behavior and make judgments about why they are doing what they are doing.  Although we recognize children are in a constant state of change as they go through the ages and stages of growth and development, we should also acknowledge that if we see certain seemingly consistent fear-based behaviors, we should be considering their brain state and the possibility of a traumatic reaction.  If we keep this in mind, we can gather insight into how we may be able to help them more effectively.

There are additional significant reactions that can arise in traumatized children. We will continue to discuss these reactions in my next post.

Thanks again for reading Lakeside Connect.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008.  All rights reserved.  Licensed materials.

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