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How to Help Kids With Complex Trauma

Trauma can be a common underlying condition that might cause other issues, like addiction, depression, anxiety, or self-harm. Healing from trauma can take time and require specialized treatment. How does “complex trauma” compare to other traumas, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

What Is “Trauma”?

Trauma can be broadly defined as a maladaptive response to an event that is life-threatening, shocking, or disturbing. When a person experiences a traumatic event, the “flight or fight” response is activated, yet the person “freezes.” While the body is signaling to “run away” or “fight,” the person remains frozen in fear, continues to experience the event, and begins to exhibit symptoms of trauma afterward. 

People “freeze” in these situations for several reasons. In cases of PTSD from a soldier, they are unable to flee from their duty during a gunfight. When children are abused, they might be attacked by someone they trust, which leaves them frozen as they receive conflicting messages. If a person is in a car accident, they are unable to escape impending danger. 

What Are the Types of Trauma?

Trauma can be categorized as one of the following three types:

  1. Acute: following a single life-threatening or distressing event.
  2. Chronic: a person is exposed to high-stress levels for long periods of time, such as domestic abuse or neglect.
  3. Complex: involves a mix of both acute and chronic trauma.

Complex Trauma

Complex trauma can occur early during a child’s development. Often, children that grow up neglected or abused during early childhood can develop complex trauma. In a conversation with Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey, Elizabeth Davis, a specialist in Intensive Trauma Therapy, identifies defense mechanisms that people can develop with complex trauma:

  • Difficulty adjusting to change–always looking for the next “threat”
  • Detach from relationships to keep people from getting too close
  • Unable to ask for help due to a lack of trust in others

When families are under stress as a child grows up, their parents might not be as available for them as they need. Parents could be overwhelmed themselves or unable to cope with stress. They might have physical or mental health issues that preclude them from providing care and attention to their children. As a result, the child grows up feeling that the world is unsafe, unpredictable, and dangerous. They might struggle with the presence of any additional stressors to do their lack of coping skills.

Complex trauma can lead to addiction as a means of escaping by self-medicating. When trauma is the root cause of addiction, what do we treat first? Can the person get sober if they are not addressing underlying issues? Will they be able to address underlying trauma if they are not sober? When treating complex trauma with addiction, Elizabeth talks about using a “phase model” of treatment.

Phase Model of Treatment for Trauma and Addiction

Both problems can be treated simultaneously as the person works toward diving deeper into their trauma. Phase models of treatment assume that the person is most likely not ready to deal with their trauma’s resurfacing in the beginning. The person starts with stabilization, which could mean getting sober and learning new coping skills to handle the more intensive trauma work.

The phase model works a person through their complex trauma gradually. Kids with complex trauma might not have the coping skills to regulate themselves properly to handle the “deeper trauma work” that will lead to healing. Typically, this is why they might have turned to drugs, alcohol, or other maladaptive coping mechanisms; they do not have healthy skills to deal with stress. The phase model first works to build some coping skills to handle the complicated emotions that come up during trauma work. When a child is in a more “stable” mindset, addressing the trauma itself can begin.

Treatments for Diving Deeper Into Complex Trauma

Once the child is in a more stable place, they can dive deeper into addressing their complex trauma. Many modalities effective at treating other mental health issues can help with trauma, like talk-therapies and group sessions. Specialized practices, like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Somatic Therapy, may be incorporated into the treatment of complex trauma. These forms of therapy help to rewire the brain during treatment to help reduce the child’s overactive trauma responses.

Complex trauma is one of the most prevalent forms of trauma rooted in attachment issues at an early age. These attachment issues can create trust issues and heighten a child’s sense of danger as they grow up. Fortunately, there is hope for those suffering from complex trauma to heal and lead a fulfilling life.

Complex trauma develops when a child grows up in an unsafe or insecure environment. When children cannot predict when they will have their needs met, they can grow up to believe that the world is unsafe. They can develop problems in relationships, as they have difficulty trusting others. Sometimes, they learn to become overly self-reliant and are unable to ask others for help. Some individuals with complex trauma may isolate from others due to their mistrust. Commonly, they may develop a co-occurring drug or alcohol use disorder to self-medicate due to a lack of healthy coping mechanisms. If your child is struggling to cope with life and is turning to maladaptive behaviors like cutting, drugs, or alcohol, they may have underlying issues at the root of these problem behaviors. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center of Estes Park, Colorado, is here to help kids and families struggling with addiction and other issues. Call us today at (303) 443-3343.

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