True Story: Tomas sat next to his best friend, Sam, at a shared desk, working on their second-grade schoolwork. The teacher told the class that as soon as they finished they could take out their puzzles and start playing. Tomas finished his work quickly, as he always did, and took out his puzzle. His friend Sam joined in, playing with the puzzle until Mrs. Cameron walked over and asked to look at their schoolwork. Tomas handed his in and the teacher nodded her head with approval and put it down. Now, you might think that this could have been a traumatic experience for Sam, and it may well have been. But it is Tomas who recalls this memory, with tears in his eyes, nearly fifty years later, full of sadness and guilt because he took responsibility for the shame Sam endured, just as if it were happening today. Tomas is a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t touched a drink for nineteen years, and admits that he has an addictive personality. Since his early school years, Tomas has had trouble finishing projects and being “successful,” although he has never really been able to explain why. His inability to finish a recent business project, in spite of consciously wanting to do so, prompted a conversation about any childhood experiences that might have caused him to subconsciously fear success. In the course of that exploration, he recalled the memory related above.

This example reminds us that childhood trauma comes in all shapes and sizes because the impact is dependent on our own unique perceptions. Typically, we might think of a traumatic event as a major or life-threatening event, but Tomas’ example shows us that trauma can result from any experience that disrupts our view of the world as a safe and stable place.

Scientific research shows that unresolved traumatic experiences have physiological effects, especially when they occur during the formative years. These effects can impact any area of life, from health issues to addictions to depression or relationship issues. Traumatic experiences cause a physiological change in the brain that impacts a child’s spiritual, emotional, behavioral, academic, social, and physical development—unless or until the experience is resolved and a sense of safety and stability restored.

As conscious parents we can no longer afford to dismiss our children’s negative experiences when we are aware of the true and lasting impact these early experiences can have on their futures. How do these traumatic experiences affect their development? What makes an event traumatic for one person but not another? How do we address the effect that negative experiences have on our children, and, for that matter, on ourselves? How do we ensure that our children’s spirits stay vibrant and free of the need to resort to addictive or unhealthy substitutes for “happiness?”

“Basic trust in the security and continuity of the emotional and physical world is key to the development of a sense of positive identity and self-esteem,” say experts. “Providing enriching cognitive, emotional, social, and physical experiences in childhood could transform our culture. But before our society can choose to provide these experiences, it must be educated about what we now know regarding child development.”

Would you like to do all you can to prevent addictive or self-destructive behaviors in your child as he or she enters and proceeds through the teen and young adult years? Let’s take a quick and simple look at how brains develop and what you can do now to prevent unhealthy behaviors.

What Do Brains Do?

The job of the brain is to perceive, process, store, and act on information gathered from each of our unique experiences in order to ensure survival. During the first six years of life, the brain uses the information it gathers to sub-consciously create a world-view that sets the foundation for how the child will perceive future events. Dr. David Hendricks, a medical doctor and addiction specialist, says that through the process of brain imaging we see that traumatic childhood events impede the normal physiological processes that promote survival and happiness. In the course of a traumatic event, behaviors that usually produce pleasure become painful. In Tomas’ situation, completing his homework successfully would normally bring praise and therefore pleasure. Instead, it produced feelings of sadness and guilt because the teacher reprimanded his friend. From then on, his brain rejected the pathway of “successful completion,” because it expected pain. These traumas cause the brain to adapt and override the normal pleasure pathway, in essence saying “Detour! This route no longer leads to pleasure, it leads to pain. Beware of any route that resembles this as it may lead to pain as well!”

The changes a child makes as a means of protecting himself in response to trauma may serve him well within the context of an early environment. After all, in that second grade classroom, it made sense to Tomas’ subconscious mind to avoid finishing his work so that his friend wouldn’t get in trouble. But the adaptation had no long-term value. In fact, it became detrimental. Later in life, Tomas’ brain continued to seek other sources of pleasure because it had learned that it would not find pleasure in the successful completion of projects. Throughout his life, Tomas would make decisions that were supposed to bring pleasure by accepting to be the pitcher on the baseball team, taking the lead in the school play, or beginning a business venture, but the tension between his conscious desire and his subconscious programming would create such internal stress that he would not follow through on these decisions. He would end up not showing up for baseball practice, forgetting to memorize his lines, or failing to follow-up with a business contact. Trauma creates tension between our “subconscious survival programming” and our “conscious will.” Left unresolved, such tension can result in addictions and psychological or neurological disorders.

Whatever it is that disrupts a child’s sense of safety and well-being is traumatic. Traumatic events stimulate a cascade of physiological and emotional responses that live on long after the event ends. These physiological responses create emotional barriers that keep our kids from realizing their true potential and, too often, move them toward covering up their discomfort with unhealthy or addictive behavior. In our society, we see kids of all races, religions, intelligences, and socio-economic levels turning toward drugs, alcohol, and other destructive behaviors to mask their pain.

As conscious parents, it is our responsibility to help our children remove the barriers that form from emotional trauma, no matter how seemingly small or large. Only the child determines what impacts them, but it is our role to support them in releasing the negative emotions they carry. Dedicating the time and energy to empowering your child to resolve traumatic experiences is important at any age, but especially in the first six years. We cannot be responsible for what happens to our children, but we can be responsible for ensuring that they are supported in resolving their past and present traumas, so they can meet the world with an open heart, ready to share their talents and contribute to society.

Know The Signs Of Stress

One way to identify hidden trauma is by recognizing signs of stress in children, such as changes in habits, emotions, or attitudes. Asking children to acknowledge and identify their feelings is the first step in resolving hidden trauma. “It sounds like you don’t like your science class. How do you feel when you’re in class?” “You used to love going over to Josiah’s house, but I notice that lately you always sound frustrated when he calls. Did anything happen at his house that upset you?” “I heard that Martina’s parents are getting divorced. I know you’re close to them. How do you feel about your best friend’s parents getting divorced?”
Does your child feel sad, angry, frustrated, disappointed, afraid, or anxious? Treat that feeling as if it holds magical power over her future choices and decisions—it does!

You may find that your child can easily identify and tell you how he’s feeling, or, she might deny her feelings by saying “I feel fine, there’s nothing wrong.” If he tells you that he’s frustrated because his science class is boring, acknowledge that emotion by reflecting it back and guessing what he might need: “Boy, it sounds like you’re really frustrated because you think your science class is too easy. Do you wish you could study harder subjects?”

“No, I like the subjects we’re studying, but the worksheets she gives us are boring. We just copy the answers straight from the book.”

“Oh, so it’s not that the subjects are too easy, but that the homework’s too easy, is that it?” When the child nods yes, continue: “So you wish you had homework that was more challenging?”

The child gives a big sigh and says, “Yes, exactly, I wish the homework she gave us actually required us to think.”
“Hmm, so what might you say or do to get more challenging homework?”

“Well, I guess I could ask her for some extra homework or maybe even homework on the same topic but a couple grades ahead.”

Acknowledge Feelings And Work Through Denial

Acknowledge your child’s feelings while keeping in mind that our emotions and reactions are always our own responsibility. Your child is the authority on how she feels, but, remember, her feelings are simply an expression of her internal needs. Blaming external circumstances for how we feel is part of denying responsibility for our emotions. Your role is to ask questions to help your child zero in on those feelings and what the underlying needs are. When your child feels that her emotions are heard and acknowledged, traumatic events lose the emotional charge and your child will be able to move on to ask for what she needs.

If you encounter denial when you ask your child how she feels, realize that it’s also a sign of underlying trauma. It’s difficult for any child to address an underlying issue if she doesn’t know or understand fully what is amiss. Tomas did not link his avoidance to completing projects with an event that occurred in the second grade. Few children, teens, or adults are so insightful. But delving in to gain those insights and find those connections is part of the healing process.

Tools To Help Our Children

As parents, we can equip ourselves with tools to help address our children’s feelings or we can turn to other sources of support. Try using Connective Communication (available on our website), Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), prayer, therapy, hugs, or whatever resonates with you. With the help of EFT, Tomas was able to let go of the emotional charge his memory carried to see the situation from a more healthier, more realistic perspective. Later that week, he experienced a new sense of completion on a project he had been working on for some time, and was enthusiastically looking forward to future planned projects.

If we treat each of our children’s “traumatic moments” with respect and a willingness to resolve them, we move them away from making addictive choices in the future. They learn to accept responsibility for their reactions, and we help them discover better and healthier ways to address their resulting emotions as they interact in the world. Our goal is to insure that our children are living and acting from a place of security and confidence instead of acting on fears left over from past traumas. When we help them resolve those traumas, they are able to interact with the world to their full potential.

“Only if outward and inner freedom are constantly and consciously pursued is there a possibility of spiritual development and perfection and thus of improving man’s outward and inner life.”
-Albert Einstein, 1940

Author's Bio: 

Sue Woodward is the co-founder and Editor In Chief of North Star Family Matters magazine and she also is an EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) practitioner. Book her to speak the Connective Connection in your mom's group of family seminars.
Visit her website