This last line of the novel “The Great Gatsby” is an apt description of the struggle faced by children with early trauma histories. Changes in the architecture of their brains run so deep that unconscious memories of the past limit their ability to successfully move on with their lives. It’s not that they don’t want to. They can’t without a lot of help.
Here’s what happens. Traumatic memories are stored in the brain’s right hemisphere. They are usually nonverbal because the events associated with them usually occurred in the early stages of language development. But the emotional charge remains. And can be triggered by apparently unrelated experiences in the present.
The following are common triggers for school-aged children and some strategies you can try:
Changes in routine
All children rely on consistent routines to bolster their developing self-control. Change makes them uncomfortable. They are less confident in new situations, sometimes hesitating to participate. But most recover quickly, needing only the reassurance of a trusted adult or the encouragement of a peer.
Children with early trauma histories react far more intensely to change. Past experiences in unpredictable environments make them sensitive to even minor disruptions in their routines. They quickly downshift into a survival mode where “fight, flight, or freeze” are the only options available to them. Recovery is difficult and time consuming because it requires quieting the emotional charge of the past that is being triggered by changes in the here and now.
Strategies to try:
- Prepare children well in advance for unavoidable changes. Talk to children about strategies they can use to manage their feelings and stress.
- Develop a daily schedule and stick to it. Use a simple visual icon for each major event of the day.
- Create a visual icon for break. Place it in the schedule at times when unexpected things occur, like assemblies.
- Develop and use a clear transition ritual between activities. Music paired with movement works best.
Most children have a low tolerance of discipline that is coercive or punitive in some way. Harsh words, loud voices, and threatening behaviors do little to help children learn how to regulate their feelings and behavior. Children are far more receptive to adult guidance when it is offered in a kindly manner, within the context of a caring relationship.
The same is true of children with early trauma histories. They also benefit from caring relationships with adults. But their ability to form these relationships is often compromised by the emotional charge of unconscious memories. These are triggered by interactions with adults who have some authority over them.
The urge to re-enact the original trauma with adults available in real time can be overwhelming. Parents, teachers, foster parents, group home staff can find themselves caught off guard by a child’s relentless need to replay the original drama, perhaps hoping for a more positive outcome this time around.
Strategies to try:
- Explain behavioral expectations as a contract between children and adults to maintain a safe, violence free environment where children can learn and grow.
- Involve children in developing behavioral expectations. Review these on a regular basis to assess their effectiveness in maintaining a safe, cooperative learning environment.
- If children are working with more than one adult, be sure that there is a consensus about behavioral expectations. Conflicting expectations among caregivers will almost always trigger a strong negative reaction in children with early trauma histories.
It’s always tricky knowing how far to push a child. Developmental milestones provide an outline of the types of activities children are capable of at certain ages. Tests of readiness and skill acquisition give us additional information about where a child’s achievement and behavior fall in relationship to other children the same age.
But over and above all that we know that children vary in their ability to work hard and persist at difficult tasks. Some of the observed differences are due to temperament. Others are due to the child’s confidence and self-perception.
Children with early trauma histories fear situations where they don’t know what to do. Frustrating tasks trigger unconscious memories of times when a caregiver’s unrealistic expectations and explosive behaviors made failing dangerous. They prefer to withdraw or appear noncompliant rather than appear incapable to teachers and peers.
Strategies you can try:
- Read children stories about people who overcame their fear of failure. Discuss the strategies they used, and the self-talk they employed.
- Set up a buddy system where children can ask one another for help. Encourage them to partner with one another.
- Use role plays and modeling to demonstrate the need to ask for help throughout life.
- Acknowledge children’s efforts to ask for help when they need it.
- Provide children with a visual template for how to complete tasks or follow directions.