Trauma in a Child's Mind

This week on "The Bachelor," a woman began to cry as she was faced with the challenge of real life bumper cars. The contestants were to play bumper cars with actual cars. As she thought about getting in her car and smashing it in to her components, she began to cry, thinking about an incident when she was little, stuck in the middle of bumper cars bumping against her. As they do on "The Bachelor," the producers took this as an opportunity to insert some humor, replaying scenes of a girl in a bumper car getting bashed by other bumper cars. Other contestants rolled their eyes at "the bumper cars trauma." 

Perhaps this woman was dredging up tears to gain attention from the bachelor, but who is to say this event wasn't truly traumatizing for her? This event contains many of the classic components that make up a trauma and is escalated because she was a child at the time of the event. She felt unsafe, helpless, and was not able to tap in to her reptilian brain instincts of fight, flight, or flee--all she was able to do was freeze. 

I use this example, not to reveal my guilty television pleasures, but to emphasize that only the person who experienced the trauma can define the effect the trauma had on them. This is especially true of childhood traumas. While some experience horrific events as children, others are traumatized by seeing a scary movie and believing it's real.

It is also important to remember in thinking about your own childhood traumas or a trauma experienced by your child, that children define events differently than we do as adults. I think back to an incident in my own childhood where I was playing outside and went in to the yard of a house near by to say hello to a dog in the yard. The dog jumped on my back, bigger than I was, and knocked me down. For some, this incident might have instilled a lifelong fear of dogs, but in my 5-year-old brain I defined the event as the dog giving me a hug.

If your child does experience a trauma such as a trip to the emergency room or a car accident, it's important to remember that as parents, we can anchor our children within the trauma. We can help to reduce the trauma by talking to them about it and highlighting the good parts. You can highlight that your child got to safety and you were able to give them a big hug after. You can help to remind them of the popsicles they were able to eat in the hospital or when their friend from school came to bring them a balloon. 

Just as any event that causes a person to feel unsafe, helpless, and in danger can be labeled as a trauma, there are steps we can take to minimize the sense of trauma. Even if you were not there during the trauma your child experienced, making your child feel your presence in the wake of the trauma and insuring they are safe now is of great importance in helping them to work through the trauma.

For severe trauma, it is important to seek out counseling for your child and stay involved in the therapeutic process in order to help them cope.