The Unseen Adversary:Why Can’t You Just Get Over PTSD?

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She started screaming again. This is the third night this week. I can hear her crying, pleading for help, pleading for “them” to stop. I go to her room. She is fighting off an invisible demon from her past. She is scratching and twisting. Tears streak her face. I go to help her and she mistakes me from the villain. She starts hitting and kicking me. No matter how many times I call her name or shake her, she does not wake up. She is locked in there. I can’t get her out. I hold her, absorbing the pounding because she thinks I’m the monster. I do it to keep her safe- to keep her from acting out her night terror. After a half hour of this, she wears herself out. She falls limp and finally plummets into a real sleep. I stare at her crying. I pull her close and pray. I pray that the Lord will free my child from the pain. I pray that one day she will have relief. So far relief has not come.

This is how my husband and I’s nights go about 2-3 nights a week. I can’t remember the last time either one of us got a good night’s sleep. This demon, this monster that attacks our child at night is called Post Trauma Stress Disorder or (PTSD).

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is when someone has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event(s). The symptoms can last for a few months or years. Sometimes symptoms may not show up until years later when symptoms are triggered from another terrifying event. PTSD cannot be cured. However, through therapy and learning of good self-help strategies the symptoms can decrease.

What are the symptoms of PTSD? Please note that symptoms can express themselves differently in children under 6 years of age.

-Nightmares or Night Terrors (Nightmares where they act out their dreams and cannot be awoken).

-Recurring, negative memories from the traumatic event(s)

-Reliving the traumatic event(s) (Flashbacks)

-Strong emotional and physical reactions to triggers (things that remind you of the trauma). They are individualized based on the trauma experienced. It can be a smell, a sound, an item, a person, a place, a time of day or year, etc.

-Since these thoughts and triggers are so distressing to someone with PTSD they may go out of their way to avoid the triggers. Example: I know someone who was sexually abuse by a man who wore a very popular cologne which is still produced today. She will not enter any store that has a cologne counter because that cologne is so triggering to her.

-Isolating ones self from people and places associated with the traumatic event(s).

-Sense of hopelessness and that it will never get better

-Pervasive negative thoughts about oneself and the world

-Difficultly with memory- it can also include forgetting details about the traumatic event(s). In young children, they may cognitively remember the events, but their body does.

-Difficultly maintaining relationships and feeling detached from family and friends

-Pervasive negative mood and feeling of emotional numbness

-Easily startled and hyper vigilant

-Difficultly with sleeping and concentrating

-Self-destructive behaviors: drinking too much, driving to fast, etc

-overwhelming guilt and outbursts of anger or aggression

-Children under 6 may reenact traumatic events through play and may have nightmares, but the nightmares do not always contain the traumatic event(s).

-Suicidal thoughts

(Mayo Clinic).

What I need you to understand about PTSD is that when you have met one person with PTSD you have met one person with PTSD. Yes, there are common symptoms, but the traumatic events they experienced and their triggers are as individualized as each person. Just because something does not threaten you does not mean that thing is not a trigger for someone else We must be sensitive to that fact, and try to unobtrusively find out their triggers.

People with PTSD cannot just “get over” their symptoms. You cannot love or discipline them out of existence. Trauma affects the biology of the brain and is a medical condition. As any other condition, it takes medical intervention such as doctor consultations, therapy, and sometimes medication to help decrease the symptoms.

Children sometimes will show anxiety, depression, aggression, suicidal/ self-harm tendencies, irritability, extreme guilt or shame, and self-isolating behaviors. Really young children may not remember all the trauma, but will show the symptoms. Educators, if you know a child you are teaching has been through traumatic events, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE ask what their triggers are. It will save both you and the child some potential difficulties and possibly improve communication.

If you find my blog helpful, please follow it and share the link with others. I pray that I am giving these children a voice. #MamasOfTrauma

References:

Post traumatic stress disorder. (n.d.) Mayo clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967

Mama Raising Children of Trauma

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I started this blog to speak on behalf of the children who have experienced prolonged trauma and the caretakers that raise them. I pray that this blog promotes understanding of the unique struggles of children of trauma and the VERY DIFFERENT ways they have to be raised.

What makes me qualified to speak out (or write) about childhood trauma, you may ask? I have fostered 7 children who have experienced various forms of severe and prolonged abuse and neglect. I adopted two of my foster placements. I also hold a degree in Psychology from North Carolina State University where I studied developmental, child, adolescent, and abnormal psychology. Thirdly, I am an adult that has 5 Adverse Childhood Experience factors as described in the Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted from 1995-1997 by the partnership of the CDC and Kaiser Permanente. I will reference this study often in my blog posts because I feel it is an important study to help us begin to understand the effects of trauma on the developing brain. Here is a link to that study: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/about.html

All this listed above does not make me an expert on trauma. If anyone claims to be an expert on trauma, then they are trying to sell you something. What it makes me is trauma informed and I hope to pass my knowledge and experiences onto you.

Please hear me on this! Love is NOT enough to turn a child who has experienced prolonged trauma life around. Love is an integral part, but it takes so much more! If there is one thing I have learned from fostering is that “love” is learned just as manners and tying your shoes are learned. Here is what I mean. If you don’t teach a child to say please and thank you, they won’t do. Heck, even when you teach them, they still don’t do it all the time. Hence, if children aren’t loved, cuddled, kissed, read to, sung to, fed, changed, and held since birth, then it affects their psyche, their development, social skills and behavior. They don’t learn to “speak” love. They can’t “read” love either. It is like a foreign language to them. Why do you think hospitals have volunteers in the NICU to hold the babies? Hospitals understand that it is detrimental to babies when they don’t receive the gift of touch and love from day one.

But there is hope…

Going forward with this blog, I want to help people understand the biological, emotional, social, and behavioral effects of prolonged trauma on children. I also want to discuss the toll it takes on the caretakers of these children and give them a voice as well. I want to expose the inadequacies of our current mental health system to address the needs of these children. I pray that this will help someone somewhere feel understood! Share if you like! There will be more to come.

God bless!

What’s for lunch?

We waited outside the 9 foot tall black metal fence. The fence is palisade style with its black pointed tips pointing in towards its inhabitants. We have waited about 5 minutes with no response to our ring of the buzzer so my husband pushes it again. A couple of minutes later, a staff member who happens to be walking past us, sees us and calls out, “Who ya here for?” “Jill Smith”, we yell back between the pickets. “I’ll check the paperwork.” You see, we have to call 24 hours in advance to schedule a weekday visit and 72 hours in advance to have a weekend visit. After about another 8 minutes, we hear the click of an unlocking metal door across the way. Out from the door, emerges an obviously unkempt Jill wearing bedroom slippers, sweatpants and sweatshirt. I thought to myself, this must be what parents who’s children are incarcerated feel like. A myriad of emotions run over me, happiness at seeing the child I love, concern over her seemingly unkempt appearance, and nervousness over how she will act during our visit. Someone else lets us in the gate. As soon as Jill gets close enough, our 5 year old son, Peter, runs to her screaming in excitement,” Jill, Jill, Jill!” She smiles at his excitement and hugs him. Next, she smiles and says, “Daddy” and hugs him. The excitement settles when she sees me. “Mommy”, she says in a notably less enthusiastic voice. She gives me a mechanical hug and quickly pulls away. My heart crumbles, but we continue to a conference room for privacy during our visit.

I start,”How are things going this week?” She breaks in, “What’s for lunch?” I would usually make her answer my question before allowing her to redirect. She does that when she doesn’t want to talk about something. I just let it go to keep things light. She tears into the food, saying how much she missed outside food. She and Peter play with his kid’s meal toys. It almost seems normal, not our normal, but normal family normal. I ask her to throw her food away. She eyes me and wanders over to my husband and hugs his neck. “Thank you, Daddy for the food.” He replies, ” You’re welcome, but your mom asked you to throw away your trash. She drops her arms from around his neck and smiles at me. She wanders the room in open defiance. I know she will eventually throw it away, but she wants to control when she does it. I ignore her defiance and ask how school is going. A teacher from the school district where the facility is comes and teaches the kids every day. She starts playing with her brother’s toys to avoid my question. She gets rough with them and he cries out, “Stop!” She gets more animated with the rough play. I say firmly, “Stop!” She looks at me and smiles and plays with them rough for about 20 more seconds and puts them down. “It’s snack time. I want to go back.”, she says. It’s only been about an hour. We were approved for a four hour visit. We can’t convince her to stay. We call for someone to escort us out. She hugs us and goes back to her dormitory with no emotion. We watch her walk away with tears in our eyes as the employee unlocks the gate to let us out. We get in the car. My husband looks at me, “She’s as happy as a clam in there because she does have to love or bond with anyone in there.” We both know it’s true, and we cry tears of grief and loss as we pull out of the parking lot. I stare out the window. He focuses on driving. We sit in silence.

Insider Info: Jill blames me for all her hospital stays and for this long term placement because I have been the one present with her every time she has been admitted to Acute care. She even refused to see me several times when I came to visit and I would leave each time fighting back tears. My husband has been present at some of them, but she only holds that grudge for me. I am the bad guy. In the past, she would triangulate my husband and I against each other. She is extremely manipulative and has the abilities of a seasoned con artist to work people over. My husband is a “what I can see” kinda guy. He uses his senses to gather information and doesn’t naturally assume there is much past what his senses take in. He is a good balance for me except in these triangulation situations. Due to my background, I had to learn very early how to read what people weren’t saying. I learned to read micro mannerisms and body language that others don’t notice. I can tell when she is lying and I am not afraid to call her out on it. I know when she has stolen by the way she acts and I start a search of her usual “stash” places. Our different approaches to gathering information from the world around us, led him to think I was overreacting and me to him thinking he was blind. Over the years, we have learned how to talk about what we think is happening and come up with a plan that is right in the middle most of the time. That is what you have to do when you are parents.

Children with RAD want control of all situations and they try to get that control or maintain it through manipulation and behavior. They will appear to be affectionate and bonded with people they know they can pull the wool over on. Once you stop letting them exert this control, you become mortal enemy number one. You become the center of passive aggressive acts, stealing and destruction of your possessions, lying about you to make them look innocent and that is all your fault, guilting, and physical aggression. Sometimes when she is trying to work me over, I let her keep going for a little while because I can get a couple of hugs and some time spent with her. I want to keep trying to bond with her. I want affection from my child, but I know it all ends as soon as I say no to whatever she wants. It always leaves me broken hearted, but I have hope that one day, on some level, we can find our peace. One day…

Hope Floats

I am a big Sandra Bullock fan. Why not be, she’s awesome, right? Well, anyway, at the end of her movie, Hope Floats, Sandra Bullock’s character, Birdee Pruitt says, “Childhood is what we spend the rest of our life trying overcome. That’s what mama always says. She says that beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s the middle that counts the most…Just give hope a chance to float up. And it will…” (1998). Isn’t it amazing that even if our water is murky, gelatinous, and debris ridden, hope can still find a way to make its way to the top.

I love Jill. Her anger comes from a deep rooted place of hurt. I understand that. I can see past her behaviors to the scared little person underneath. However, I don’t know how to help her. I have exhausted most of the treatments for children her age in this area. Long term care is our last resort. I have hope though because she will have access to Neurofeedback also referred to as EEG Neurofeedback. This is a therapy that is backed by 30 years of research and literally works to reorganize the networks of the brain. Repeated experiences shape our brain and strengthen the networks therein. If we change the types of experiences the brain receives, then we change and strengthen those types of networks. The patient literally watches their brain waves on a screen and learns through therapy how to reshape their brainwave activity towards more desirable responses and better regulation of those responses. Kids (or adults) literally play a video game with their brain waves. When their brainwaves respond in the correct way, they gain points and move up levels. After repeated therapy, the brain is retrained in the activity it produces. The avenue of benefit is growing wider as it is being used with people who have experienced abuse, addiction, ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, and the list goes on. It is not an overnight fix and can take a long time, and therapy has to be consistently administered. Veterans groups are advocating for this therapy for all Veterans with PTSD. We shall see if it has any positive effects.

My prayers rise on the wings of hope that the Lord saved my little girl for a reason. I believe God uses all things together for His good. As South Carolina’s State motto states, “Dum spiro, spero”, meaning “While I breathe, I hope”!

Ah, Yeah, Karen, You Don’t Know….

I started to tell her. I said in my mind, she’ll listen, she’ll understand. She will hear me. I put down my Starbucks, looked around the coffee house for listening ears, and started, “I have been having real problems with Jill. She has been saying horrible things and her behavior has been out of control.” My coffee companion jumps in, “I know what you’re going through! My daughter was so sassy to my husband and I at dinner one night because she didn’t want to get off her phone. She has never talked to us that way before so I took her phone for a week.” I drop my shoulders in defeat, “Yeah, Karen, I guess it’s a girl thing”, and sip my Caramel Macchiato, fighting back the urge to cry.

Inside my head, I sometimes play funny little videos of what I would like to be doing instead of how I am actually responding. In my internal video, I reach over and grab her shoulders, shake her, and yell, “Really Karen!?!?” Did your daughter then go and grab a knife and threaten to stab herself if you didn’t do what she wanted? Did she point the knife at you when you came near to coax her to put the knife down, screaming, “I will stab you if you come near me!”, because mine did? Did it take the strength of your husband and you both to wrestle the knife away from her. “No? So I guess you DON’T know, KAREN!”

“Karen, have you had to install security cameras INSIDE your house, tied to your phone to alert you when your child is up at night, stealing, sneaking out, or breaking your valuables in retaliation for discipline administered earlier that day? Did your child seek out of their room one night and dismantle the wires in your security system so she could climb out window? Yes, you read right! That happened at age 7. Did your child do that at 7, Karen? Do you sleep with your younger child in your bed, with the door locked, and one eye open because you are afraid your child will find the knives you have to hidden from her? Are you afraid that she will stand over you in bed with a knife and that is what you will wake up to? Oh, sounds like a horror movie, NO, it’s my life, KAREN! So when you complain about your only child, honor student who is in all advance and AP classes, excels at everything she touches, is a member of several clubs, active in your church, and volunteers at the retirement home in her spare time…It makes me want to remind you VERY LOUDLY about how blessed you are to have your daughter. Karen, I WISH all my child did wrong was have a sassy mouth. Actually, I would consider that a blessing…Karen!

Normal parents don’t have keyed locks on every door in their house and a lock box to keep the keys to keep everyone safe. Have you had to call the cops on your 11 year old because she was so violent that you couldn’t control her? “Oh, you haven’t, Karen?!?!?!” Tell me again, how hard you life is, Karen!”

Sorry, for this post, but I am imperfect and sometimes my human side comes out. Sometimes, I am petty and sensitive. Sometimes words do hurt me! Sometimes the Karens of the world get to me.

I really had to pray about letting this Karen thing go and as you can see, I am not quite there. I prayed and said to God: “After multiple miscarriages and a cumulative 5 years of fighting DSS to adopt my 2 children, meanwhile watching family and friends pop babies out like candy out of a Pez dispenser, why can you not give me a break? Why can’t I just get some rest? Mark and I are tired, so tired! The answer came in a dream. I was behind a podium in front of a large stadium or auditorium, not sure which. I felt frightened in the dream. I could hear lots of noise, but saw no one. I heard a voice from behind say, “Speak!” I looked to see who was behind me and I woke up.

I realized that Karen was put there to help me. So I am getting (a little) closer to letting it go. (Remember, I am human.) I realized Karen has never seen the other side of the fence. Perhaps, I can show the Karens of the world the other side. I realized that Karen and I are both blessed, Karen, with her naïveté of RAD and myself, with my understanding of RAD. I am not an expert, just a woman who has lived it. If anyone wants to talk to me about learning more about trauma or RAD from my personal research and experiences, contact me through the email in the contact section. I will talk with you. After all, I WAS told to “speak”.

Raising R.A.D Through the Eyes of a Mom

I have been hesitant on posting this post because it is so full of the honesty and reality I have hidden for years from public sight. I will refer to the child in this post as Jill in this post. I know some of you will not understand. Many of you may judge me. That is fine. You are not nearly the first to do so. I am writing this for the moms and dads out there that are raising children with RAD and feel like they are the only ones. You are not alone. You are a bad parent. You are raising a child with a condition that only 5 out every 100,000 people in the US population are diagnosed with. It is rare. It is unseen by 95% of the population unless they watch a Lifetime movie or medical show with RAD as a storyline. I want to speak out for all of us so we no longer have to lay underground. Love me or hate me for my choices, but I will no longer be silent.

“I hate you! You hate me! I wish you have never adopted me! I hope you die!”, she rasps while yelling, the fury straining Jill’s vocal cords. Throwing toys and books at me, Jill screams, “I am not going to do anything you want. You are not the boss of me. I hate you!” Jill charges at me with all her might and pushes my shoulders. I fall backwards and land hard on the broken toys that a second before pelted me. She comes after me again. I yell at my younger child to go head into Mommy’s bedroom, and I run after them, slam the door and lock it, while the 10 year old Jill kicks, beats and slams themselves against the bedroom door. I hold the door with my body, feeling the reverberations of her attack. “I am going to kill both of you! I am going to stab both of you!” She howls through the door.

I tell my little one to hide in my closet and throw as many clothes on top of them as possible. I brace to protect my younger child in case the older breaks through the door. You wanna know what hell feels like, that has to be close to it. I held the door praying for both my children. Finally, after about 25 minutes, Jill wore herself out and went and collapsed on the couch. After what seemed an eternity, my adrenaline drained. I whispered to my little one to remain hidden. I waited a few more minutes, unlocked the door, and checked on Jill to see if she was hurt. She was sobbing uncontrollably. “I’m sorry! I don’t know what happened. By that time, my husband got home. I quickly told him what happened, got Jill in the car, and took her to the nearest acute mental health facility. This made her 3 trip in 6 weeks for similar incidences. What spawned this scene, you may I ask, Jill was told to take their shoes up to her room. Yeah, it was that mundane of directive.

I can imagine many of your thoughts right now. That can’t be true. That can’t be real. All that kid needs is a good spanking! What happened to setting boundaries as a parent?!?! And my personal favorite, just put Jill in sports, that will solve everything! Jill just needs to be more “active”. Yeah, before Jill, I use to leisurely go around being judgmental to parents as well. I thought with love, discipline, and structure, any child can become a model citizen. My husband and I had never heard of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) when we adopted, but we soon got a crash course in it. Reactive Attachment Disorder or RAD is deeply rooted in a child’s brain development and cannot be excised with soccer or spanking! Please understand that!

Reactive Attachment Disorder is defined by the DSM V as children who do not seek or like to receive comfort from their caregivers when they are distressed. They do not respond appropriately socially and emotionally to others. They have limited positive affect. They may respond with irritability, fear, or sadness even when having nonthreatening interactions with caregivers. These children experienced consistent lack of care and meeting of even their most basic needs when they were infants and toddlers. They may have had many different caregivers when they were young, such as being in many different foster homes which never allowed for stability and relationship building with caregivers which hurts their ability to trust others. Also, it can also evidence itself in children reared in institutions where there is a high child to caregiver ratio as we have since evidenced in children adopted from Russia and other countries with similar systems.

These children can please when they want. They are master manipulators. They lie, steal, destroy property, know to have explosive tempers, can be physical, can be indiscriminate with whom they “show” affection, and learn systems in order to master and manipulate them. It is all about control with them. They never had control so to maintain a sense of safety for themselves by trying to control all future interactions and situations. This is exhausting when every interaction with your child is a battle with very little affection in return.

There are many theories as to how Reactive Attachment Disorder comes to fruition in the brain. The one agreed upon contributing factor is extreme neglect and abuse with in the first 5 years of life with the strongest influence coming before the 33 month of development. As evidenced in my other posts, trauma and neglect effect various parts of the brain that control emotional regulation, impulse control, conscience, moral regulation, cognitive processing, fight, flight, or freeze mechanism, and many other parts. These parts of the brain do not grow, develop, and function the way a Neurotypical child’s brain. My child has been the center of a case study by Dr. Elizabeth Mason during her tenure as the head of the University of South Carolina’s Neuropsychiatry Clinic. Dr. Mason, with our permission, conducted a case study that our child was showing signs of Bipolar, RAD, and a potential personality disorder at age 5 and 6 previously thought not to express itself until around 10 years old or older. She wanted to prove that we have to be more vigilant in recognizing signs of Developmental Trauma as young as we can to help the prognosis. In one of Jill’s sessions, Dr. Mason called the effects of neglect and abuse on the brain in early life a Traumatic Brain Injury and the child must be viewed that way in order to help them. The behavior is a symptom of something different in the internal workings of their brain.

There is new research that states there is a genetic link to a child developing RAD. I know you are probably thinking, wait a second, didn’t you just say it was an environmental influence that caused a Traumatic Brain Injury? Yes, I did…, BUT RAD does not develop in every child that experiences abuse and neglect in their first few years of life. RAD is a rare diagnosis. The rates of abuse and neglect are heartbreakingly many times larger than the number diagnosed. Neuropsychiatrist believe that something in these children’s genetics in combination with the trauma make a “perfect storm” for the development of RAD. Jill has several comorbidities along with RAD, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Anxiety, Bipolar Type 1, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Pervasive Depressive Disorder. She even tests on the Spectrum thusly being diagnosed with Autism. However, the areas she met the criteria on fall in the same deficits as RAD. Jill’s mother was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1 and Borderline Personality Disorder so the genetic predisposition theory might hold true.

Jill has been a threat to herself and others numerous times in the past several months. She has had 5 acute hospital stays in 4 months and is now in a long term residential treatment facility that focuses on treating children with severe RAD and Bipolar Disorder. I am praying that they can help her. I keep hoping that this will be the thing that will help her be able to live a somewhat normal life (i.e. live on her own, hold a job, and have friends).

My husband and I are two imperfect humans trying to help build back up what others broke down and we are the ones that take the arrows of judgement and misunderstanding. If you think you can do better, foster or adopt a child with RAD. There is a HUGE need. I think you will quickly understand how difficult it can be.

In my future posts, I will talk about some therapies that are showing promise with RAD, PTSD, and Developmental Trauma. I will talk about some interventions that help these children be a little more successful at home and in the classroom from my personal experience. I would like to open up about what it is like to seek treatment for a child with a condition like RAD. Thank you for your time! I hope you keep reading my posts.

They called her “Girl”

Before talking about PTSD and Attachment Disorders, I want to pull back the curtain on what environmental factors play in shaping a child who experiences abuse and neglect. These are true events from the life of one of the children we fostered. Fyi, the truth may be hard to read. This post is not for the faint of heart, but unfortunately was the daily experiences for one little girl.

It was cold, breath condensing, cold. Deputy Sheriff R. was the second Sheriff’s Deputy to respond to a domestic violence call. It was about 8pm on a mid February night. This single wide trailer is know well by the Sheriff’s Department for drug activity, prostitution, and domestic violence. The deputies walked in and were hit by an overpowering smell of rotting food, dog feces, urine, spent Marijuana joints, mold, and other smells that remain unidentified. Deputy R. navigated the landmines of feces piles on the floor and shuddered at the numerous mousetraps with dead rats and mice. The two deputies got the domestic under control and handcuffed the aggressor. They put her in the car kicking and screaming from a drug induced tirade. Deputy R. couldn’t shake the feeling she needed to walk the property. There was something else wrong; she could sense it. She yelled at the other deputy that she was going around back. She swept her flashlight across the backyard. Her eye caught on a cluster of overgrown bushes. She shone her light and walked carefully towards the shrubs. Movement danced between the branches and her flashlight beam. Her instinct magnetically pulled her hand to her side arm. She came around to the back and found a child huddled and crying. She was naked except for waste filled diaper. The child was shivering from the cold. She called to the little girl and crouched down to be more on her level. The little girl would not come to her so the deputy duck walked closer. The little girl who looked about two, ran back in between a small gap in the bushes and came out the other side. Terrified, she shot back around the front of the aging trailer and in the the rusty storm door. The deputy ran in after her. She found her hiding in a back bedroom. She dodged landmines of dirty clothes, drug paraphernalia, and dog feces as she inches closer to the girl. The little girl scooted further into the corner and screamed at the deputy. The little one was covered in her own excrement and stank of urine. Sheriff R., being a mother, couldn’t stand how dirty and skeleton like this child was. She must be starving she thought. She radioed for the other deputy. They called Child Protective Services (CPS). She coaxed the girl out of the corner after about 10 minutes. She cleaned her up and changed her diaper. The little girl could understand a good number of the instructions the deputy was giving her while cleaning her, but had very little expressive language. The Deputy asked her name and she responded, “I am girl.” Through forensic interviews, court testimony, and her own account, she rarely wore clothes, rarely was bathed or fed. She spent a lot of time locked in the bathroom. What’s worst of all is she had so little value to her “caretakers” that they only referred to her as girl. It disgusted me because even dogs get called by a name. For the first several weeks she was with us, we had to teach her that she had a name. She had an identity. She was not just “Girl”.

This kind of abuse and neglect happens more than you know. You wonder why that child steals granola bars out of other kids’ lunchboxes. Maybe it’s because he is hungry and has not eaten for a day or too. You wonder why that child never turns in their homework. Maybe Mommy and Daddy were physically fighting so bad they had to hide in a closet all night to stay out of the fray. If there is smoke, investigate, there might be a fire. You might save a child’s life just like the one called “Girl”.

This is your brain on Trauma. Any Questions?

I remember when I was a child in the 1980s watching a commercial produced by the Partnership For a Drug Free America. It had an actor with a hot frying pan on the stove. He held up an egg and said, “This is your brain.” Then he cracked the egg into the frying pan and the egg sizzled. He then stated, “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” (PDFA, 1987). Over the years, I have seen this commercial turned into numerous memes for comedic purposes. When I began delving in to my own research on the effects of trauma on the brain, I found the above image of the “Neurotypical brain” on the left and the “Abused brain” on the right. This old commercial popped into my head. I could hear myself saying, “This is your brain. This is your brain on trauma. Any questions?” Just as drug use can have severe impact on development and  functioning of the brain, so can trauma.

When a child who has experienced prolonged trauma from abuse or neglect before the age of 5, their brains literally change in structure, functioning, and size of their brain. This damage can begin in the womb. Michigan State University published in Science Daily that mothers that experience domestic abuse while pregnant can change a baby’s brain. If a pregnant mother produces a large amount of the stress hormone, Cortisol, it serves as a neurotoxin to the brain and can result in higher levels of Cortisol in the baby’s brain. This can lead to behavioral and emotional problems for the child as they grow older. So even if a baby is removed from a violent situation soon after birth, they may still have long term effects on their brain because of what they were exposed to inutero (2014). Further research shows that environmental factors can change a child’s DNA in the womb and can extend into childhood. Although the Columbia University article, DNA Changes During Pregnancy Persist Into Childhood, does not specifically address the exposure of the mother to domestic violence, it does speak to the fact that environmental factors such as bad air quality and lead paint affect the DNA methylation of a baby in the womb which can have lasting effects reaching past childhood (2013). In layman terms, environmental factors ( and I postulate including domestic violence) can affect the makeup of DNA segments leading to altered DNA  and gene expression.

Now that I have explained how trauma has a global effect on brain development, I am going to delve into how it changes the different parts of the brain. In Dr. J. Douglas Bremner’s article, Traumatic Stress: Effects on the Brain, he discusses how stress changes the function, size, and structures of the various parts of the brain. The Hippocampus, which is located in the medial temporal part of the brain inside the Prefrontal Cortex (front part of the brain) is largely affected by trauma.  Declarative memory is managed in this region of the brain. Declarative memory is the ability to consciously recall facts and events. This is a factor that needs to be considered in the school setting because it changes their ability to access certain kinds of memory.

The Amygdala, which are two almond shaped parts of the temporal area of the brain, controls the fight, flight, or freeze response. Surprise, surprise, this is significantly larger in children who have experienced prolonged trauma. Their natural body response to situations (even ones we might consider benign) is heightened. It also plays a key role in our processing of emotion. So if you have a hyperactive Amygdala response, what do you think that does to how you process emotions and respond to situations.

Trauma also affects the size and function of the prefrontal cortex that controls executive functioning, planning, logic, reasoning, behavior, and speech. The Prefrontal Cortex also plays a hand in personality development. So when a child who has experienced prolonged trauma tells you they can’t behave like everyone else; they are being honest. Their brains are not built the same as Neurotypical children. Their brains were created for the purpose of survival and that is what they have done…survived! When you look at these children, please don’t just look at the abberant behavior. Look past it to see the child, the fear, the self-preservation, and unique strength they possess. You would not expect fish to climb a tree because they are not made for climbing. Sometimes we have to be the ones who learn how to swim.

My next couple of posts will be about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Attachment Disorders. After those posts, I will get into some of my personal experiences raising kids who have lived through unimagineable trauma. Please share my blog. I want to give these kids a voice. Thank you!

References:

Bremner J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience8(4), 445–461.

Columbia University: Mailman School of Public Health. (2013). DNA changes during pregnancy persist into childhood. Retrieved from https://www.mailman.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/dna-changes-during-pregnancy-persist-childhood

Michigan State University. (2014, December 16). Domestic abuse may affect children in womb. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141216100628.htm

Childhood trauma can alter brain development. (2018). Las Cruces Sun News. Retrived  https://www.lcsun-news.com/story/news/local/new-mexico/2018/01/21/severe-childhood-trauma-alter-developing-brain-create-lifetime-risk/1039104001/.