When the World is a Trigger: Understanding Children with Trauma

“For abused children, the whole world is filled with triggers”

Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 2014, p 110

Calm down.

The words grated on me. I didn’t know how to calm down. I didn’t know how to stop feeling what I felt. I didn’t know how to stop behaving the way I was behaving. I was not in control of my reactions and therefore could not calm myself down. Every time I heard those words, the reality of my powerlessness hit me in the face.

This is how I felt at the age of 16.

This is how our children with trauma feel every day.

It took me until my thirties to understand, accept, and change my reactions to life. By then, the facts of my own childhood and early adult trauma were distant and clear, no longer a constant threat. As an adult, I faced the monster of my powerlessness in ways I could not as a child.

“At the core of traumatic stress is a breakdown in the capacity to regulate internal state.”

Van Der Kolk, 2005
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Our troubled students are not so fortunate. They have neither the strategies nor the capacities to even comprehend, let alone control, their emotional and physical reactions. In learning about my own life, my history and triggers, I began to understand the internal states of these little people.

How it Starts

“Brain development is sculpted by early experience.”

Teicher, et al., 2006

From the moment a baby is born, he develops a sense of the world around him. A child’s development is in part dependent upon the genes he receives from parents, in part the environment he is born into, and in part the interaction between the natural genes and the changing environment. The body and brain take those ingredients to map out a survival guide for life. Is my life going to be scarce or plentiful? Is life full of love or disappointment? Will there be pain or comfort? Who can I depend on? And the big one: Is the world a fundamentally safe or unsafe place?

“Although experience may alter the behavior of an adult, experience literally provides the organizing framework for an infant and child. Because the brain is most plastic (receptive to environmental input) in early childhood, the child is most vulnerable to variance of experience during this time.”

Perry, et al., 1995 (emphasis added)

By the time a baby is six months old (and some researchers claim this age is younger) her brain, body, and genes are organized in the framework that the world is a safe place or the world is an unsafe place.

Take the extreme example of a child born into a war-torn country. While in the womb, the baby feels his mother’s own trauma, her stress, worry, fear, and tension. Perhaps food resources are limited. Perhaps the family is forced out of their home. Perhaps the pregnant mother fears for her life and the unborn life within her. By the time the baby is born, his genes are prepped for an unsafe framework. The infant’s body “remembers” the unfortunate circumstances and prepares accordingly. This tiny newborn has no way of knowing that these circumstances might be temporary, or how to rely on other resources to survive. It only knows that life is full of stress, scarcity, and trouble so he must prepare his body and brain for a life full of stress, scarcity, and trouble.

(Read about the Dutch Hunger Winter Cohort for a fascinating example of this type of trauma.)

In the same way, children born into fortunate circumstances (e.g., supportive parents, stable home, adequate resources), as well as children in traumatic circumstances (e.g., parental substance abuse, incarceration, poverty, divorce, violence), have “no choice but to organize themselves to survive within the families they have” (Van Der Kolk, 2012, p. 135, emphasis added). Babies, therefore, born into safe and unsafe worlds are sent on opposite developmental trajectories.

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“We get our first lessons in self-care from the way that we are cared for.”

Van Der Kolk, p 112, emphasis original

If the first care an infant receives communicates that the world is essentially safe, she will develop with the knowledge that people are safe, and her survival needs will be met. But the child who receives care that sends an unsafe message develops the belief that people are not safe and she must take care of her survival needs at all costs. This belief is then written into the brain and body of the traumatized child, without the awareness, comprehension, or control of the child themselves.

“The goal of development is to produce an organism that is well suited to match the demands of the environment, no matter how positive or adverse.”

Teicher, et al., 2006

How it Works

The emotional center (the limbic system and brain stem) of the brain is in beige. Reasoning center (frontal cortex) is in peach, maroon, and green.

When a baby encounters stimuli within and without – hunger, wet, cold, touch, sight, sound – the limbic system, the emotional center of your brain, activates. It is located in the back of your head right above your brain stem. The limbic system decides whether a stimuli is safe or unsafe. If safe, everything continues as normal. If unsafe, the different limbic components (amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus) trigger the fight-or-flight stress response. Emotional centers start firing while reasoning centers shut down. The body and brain prepare for survival. When the threat is perceived as gone, and incoming stimuli are deemed safe, the limbic system turns off and the reasoning parts of the brain turn back on.

The Limbic System
By OpenSatx College
Image by Natalie White

It’s like a zebra who catches a scent on the air. The scent is either immediately coded as a mate’s scent, and therefore safe, or a lion’s scent and therefore a threat. If the zebra senses a lion instead of a mate, the zebra’s limbic system turns on. Stress hormones course through the body. Pupils dilate, heart rate and blood flow increase, and energy is sent to the limbs to help the zebra either run away quickly or fight for its life. After the danger is gone, the process turns off, hormones cease and the zebra can return to grazing in peace. Our stress response acts the same way.

Except in the case of a unsafe child.

A traumatized child’s limbic system never turns off, because the threat is never perceived as gone.

Stress hormones continuously secrete, brain pathways continuously fire, and the body is continuously prepared for fight or flight. An unsafe child, believing this is normal because he has no other reality, finds ways to work around the constantly aroused state. He might lash out, shut down, or become uber-people-pleasing. He grows through infancy, toddlerhood, and preschool age with caregivers, friends, and family members believing that he is just “active,” or “quiet” or needs “constant stimulation.” Adults in his life assume that time and maturity will ‘fix’ the behaviors, and he’ll eventually learn to control himself.

The Unsafe Body

So, then you have a seven-year-old who throws a chair across the room for no apparent reason. Or a five-year-old who punches everyone in sight. Or a suicidal third grader. How did they get that way, we ask. What triggered them? Why did they do that? What happened right before, and how do we prevent that exact situation from happening again so that chairs do not get thrown?

What we fail to understand is that life is the trigger.

Living in a state of heightened awareness and vigilance for anything threatening her survival, even the simplest event of a pencil breaking, or a teacher asking her to do something she does not want (or is unable) to do causes a disproportionate reaction. And she does not (cannot) perceive that this is a problem. She lives in an unsafe world, so of course she has to do anything and everything she can to ensure her survival.

It seems extreme to put it in those terms, but we’re dealing with extreme children. When a child possesses an unsafe world framework, his brain literally believes his survival in life is being threatened when you ask him to sit down at his desk.

But how do I teach?

Understanding the experiences of children with trauma is the first step to change. Our ‘reactions’ and ‘responses’ to behavior then give way to an ‘approach.’ We stop trying to manage, control, or change our students, but rather guide, soothe, and teach. Many times a student might act out because she (unconsciously) senses someone is trying to control her, which means taking away her ability to keep herself safe. Instead of trying to fix a child with trauma, then, we approach her with the mindset to help.

Remember that the unsafe child believes in his body and mind that he alone is responsible for his survival in life. He goes through life with the conviction that only he knows what is best for him and only he knows how to keep himself safe, fed, and alive. At the same time, this belief is completely unconscious.

This means that she will take actions that seem counter-intuitive to what you or I might deem safe and helpful. But if you look at the students’ reactions through the lens of the unsafe world framework, it begins to make sense.

“If you mistake someone’s solution for a problem to be eliminated, not only are they likely to fail treatment, . . . but other problems may emerge.”

Van Der Kolk, 2014, p 149

The question is not “How do I teach?” in the face of troubling behavior, but “How can they learn?”

Image by John Hain on Pixaby

Our students’ stories

I recently had an enlightening encounter with a second grader. He entered my classroom with head hung, shoulders hunched, and a scowl on his face. Sensing his mood, I stopped him at the door.

I said, “You look like you’re having a bad day. What’s wrong?”

“My life,” he replied.

I gave him a hug, said I understood, and started my lesson. Instead of being defiant and disruptive for that period, he seemed to brighten up just a little, listen a little more, and try a little harder.

Everybody has a story. The ones your students carry into your classroom can sometimes come out sideways. These little people do not know how to tell you, “I’m sad and mad and confused and scared about my mom going to jail.” They only know how to yell, “Fuck you!” and run out of the classroom.

The best thing we can do for children living in a triggered world, is simply understand they are fighting a battle and perhaps all they need is some kindness.

References and Further Reading

Referenced articles:

Perry, B., Pollard, R., Blakley, T., Baker, W., Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits.” Infant Mental Health Journal. 16(4), 271-291.

Teacher, M., Tomoda, A., Andersen, S. (2006). Neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment: Are results from human and animal studies comparable? Annals of New York Academy of Sciences. 1071: 313-323.

Van Der Kolk, B. (2005). Developmental trauma disorder. Psychiatric Annals. 35(5), 401-408.

Great books:

Deci, E., Flaste, R. (1995). Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Penguin Books: New York, NY.

Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books: New York, NY.

Great sites:

National Child Traumatic Stress Network – https://www.nctsn.org

Information about Adverse Childhood Events and trauma – https://acestoohigh.com/

https://www.acesconnection.com/

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child – https://developingchild.harvard.edu/

The Child Trauma Academy – http://childtrauma.org/

https://traumacenter.net/index.html

http://www.traumacenter.org/

Great story:
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/31/science/dutch-famine-genes.html

https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/36/6/1196/814573

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