Children who Are Hiding From Their Feelings
A parent asking me about their child’s behavior can feel like saying, “I need you to teach me how to be a parent.” How would I know which response would serve my child best? I’m not a mental health professional, and if we spend more time talking about behavioral struggles than other underlying trauma factors, perhaps we’re missing a larger opportunity to explore the roots of why and how a child is behaving out of normal. In most cases, it’s not a matter of testing the parenting skills, nor would it always be appropriate to talk about trauma until all other factors are accounted for. Learning how a child is coping with trauma in subtle ways can help educators and social workers learn how to best provide support.
Early experiences give us a clearer view of how a child is coping with trauma. Trauma can trigger behaviors that we or we develop as a result. A child who is prone to emotional outbursts and behaviors may be less able to concentrate on their studies, might get into trouble, or get in trouble with their family. Some manifestations of trauma-related problems that might emerge after mild trauma (being thrown against a wall or assaulted) include emotions that seem to come out of nowhere, hyperactivity, discomfort with the environment, and an increase in tantrums and misbehavior. A child who appears to be shy or reserved in the early years might fall apart when subjected to loud sounds, direct attention, and change in environment. (For more on what a child is capable of until age two years and what issues would surface once that child reaches six years of age, read this article.)
These first experiences of life often don’t include major stressors such as emotional abuse, but rather evolutions that occur naturally over the course of childhood. These children learn through direct experience that life is never safe, and that adults may not be their friends. No Child Left Behind, a program which aims to improve the lives of children by teaching them critical life skills and giving them greater opportunities to succeed, has only limited effects in moving these children toward their potential. Lack of study time is a major barrier for many of these children. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Social and Emotional Learning Program (SELP) aims to address the great majority of these issues. The commitment of these two organizations is one reason the recently released National Survey of Children’s Health indicates that 95 percent of the children surveyed said their caregivers put them first, the highest in more than 20 years of reporting. However, both organizations are still dedicated to early childhood education, which is the oldest stage of development, and on a wider scale the majority of the children are not exposed to any of the education programs.
The Institute of Medicine conducted a 2008 study titled Parents, Children, and Cults, a longitudinal investigation into the intimate relationships between children and people who work with children and families. The results showed that childhood trauma harms the inner feelings of trust and joy and can compromise a child’s development. Ivo Mihai Nicu, Ph.D., a researcher who focuses on child health and behavioral programming at Emory University in Atlanta, examined the issue further in a much more recent article by Kathryn Morse. Nicu looked at the relationships between suffering at the hands of gangs and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the younger children in south Oakland. The young children suffered in four ways: (1) social isolation and anxiety, (2) trauma that manifested physically through aggression, (3) threats from unknown bystanders, and (4) fears of law enforcement and authority. Those children who reported all four of these problems were 26% more likely to have experienced PTSD than those who reported none of the issues. So, in order to help these children thrive, it seems likely that we need to address all of these issues.
Rather than being too focused on parenting skills or simply discussing trauma, if we really want to strengthen a child’s brain, we need to figure out where a child is coming from and then start addressing the feelings and behaviors that are causing them to act out in ways that upset their family or other adults.