TRAUMA & Behavior

Sometimes children will exhibit behaviors that appear excessive, or even like they have no cause. These behaviors are often rooted in trauma that they have experienced. Trauma has an immense effect on children’s brain processes and behaviors. While we don’t know the full history of each patron that comes to Spark, it is evident that several of the kids have been exposed to poverty, abuse, and other forms of trauma.

Traumatic events cause the brain to change the way it processes the environment. Under such severe stress, the rational parts of the brain shut off to allow the instinctual and emotional parts to take over; often, the resulting behavior is what we call fight or flight, responses of anxiety and heightened vigilance that involve either aggression or avoidance (as the names suggest). A different, more passive response a person can have to a traumatic experience is called freeze, which involves a shutdown of action and additional brain functions.

While this is happening, our brains encode many of the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings we are experiencing into our memory. In a “normal” environment, then, people can be subconsciously reminded of the traumatic experience through triggers. Triggers can be as innocuous as the smell of food cooking or a popular song, so they are often hard to detect. Exposure to certain triggers can cause the brain to return to the stressed state it was in during the trauma and respond through fight, flight, or freeze. When this happens, the person is responding to a non-threatening trigger as if it was actually dangerous. It is important, then, to be mindful that children you interact with at Spark Central may be stressed by triggers in the environment and respond accordingly.

Trauma also has a general effect on children’s self-concept and (more evidently) behavior. Traumatic experiences teach children that the world is dangerous, that they are not worthy of love, that they should expect pain and suffering over joy and success. While adults have developed enough to process and articulate these complex thoughts and feelings, children have not yet achieved this milestone. Therefore, their feelings of rejection, grief, anger, and confusion because of their trauma are often expressed through deviant behavior. They need to let their pain out rather than keep it inside, and sometimes this looks like disobedience and raised voices. (In fact, a lot of behavioral disorder diagnoses - like ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder - are addressing symptoms of underlying trauma.) This is where it is most important that the child’s value is not dependent on their behavior, so inappropriate behavior must be addressed separately from the child and their feelings.

If you’re like to learn more about trauma and children, here is an interview with trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk as well as a more technical article he wrote about developmental trauma!