young child experiencing trauma

How to Understand Trauma and PTSD

“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”

-Viktor Frankl, Austrian Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor

Trauma and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) can be complicated issues for us to understand when a child is affected by these disorders. We might not understand what our child is going through or how we can help. They might also put up a “wall” or an emotional barrier, further complicating the healing process. By understanding more about how trauma affects the mind of the sufferer, we can better know the impact of trauma and help our children work through their trauma. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl discusses the importance of finding a meaningful outlet to process and heal from trauma. He presents knowledge based on his experiences as a prisoner during the holocaust. The trauma that our kids with PTSD have experienced will not be something that they just “get over.” Rather, trauma is something that they need to process and manage in order to grow and thrive in life.

Abnormal Situations and Abnormal Reactions

When confronted with an abnormal situation like a traumatic event, reacting abnormally is a normal response. Our kids may have dealt with issues in the past, such as violence, assault, rape, molestation, near-death accidents, or witnessing a disturbing event. Following these events, they might appear to have changed, becoming withdrawn or engaging in maladaptive behaviors to cope with trauma. They might begin cutting or using alcohol or drugs to relieve themselves from pain. They might struggle with sleeping, eating, or feel overly anxious due to trauma. These types of behaviors might be considered abnormal without any context. However, these reactions are a means of coping with an abnormal situation. When faced with these types of events, our kids might not know how to cope in a healthy way.

Trauma and Early Development

According to Dr. Boriskin’s conversation with Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey on the podcast “PTSD: The Basic Tutorial,” past conceptions of trauma have been shown to be false. Namely, in the past, it was believed that a person’s reaction to trauma was due to their upbringing and childhood development. In other words, an adult experiencing trauma following an event, like fighting in a war or a car accident, was once thought to be linked to that person already being “damaged” during childhood. A person’s inability to cope with traumatic experiences, therefore, was incorrectly considered to be caused by their mental state before the event. However, we now know that any person can be susceptible to trauma and PTSD, regardless of their experiences as a child or the state of mental health before the traumatic events.

The Brain and Trauma

Following exposure to a disturbing, dangerous, or threatening event, the brain continues to operate as if it were in “crisis” mode. When we are faced with a crisis, our brains stop “thinking” and begin “reacting.” The reactions are instantaneous; there is no time to think when facing imminent harm. The “primitive” part of our brain takes over while our executive functions (the neo-cortex) are “shut-off.” The brain then rewires itself to remain in this overly reactive state to help us survive and to always be on the look-out for threats “just in case.” The experience is felt in both the body and the mind. 

Our kids can heal by processing and learning to manage the trauma, though. They will not forget the event or just “get over it;” they will need to work through it to re-wire their brains to optimal functioning. Treatments, like EMDR, can help them work through their pain.

Alienation and Isolation as a Defense

When our kids are dealing with trauma or PTSD, they might consider themselves to be what Dr. Boriskin describes as “terminally unique.” They might feel that their experiences make them unique and that no one will understand. We might struggle to relate, and individuals with PTSD may shrug off our attempts. They might say things like: “How would you understand what I’ve been through? The worse that’s happened to you can’t compare with what I’ve been through” or “You don’t know anything; you haven’t seen the things that I’ve seen.” Connecting with others sharing similar stories might be a means of breaking down this defense barrier during group sessions or residential treatment.

Ultimately, healing from trauma will take time for the brain to rewire itself, as trauma is not merely a psychological issue that a person can just “get over.” The brain requires focused work and time to heal. By healing from the event, our kids can learn to build resiliency and get their lives back on track.

Trauma and PTSD can be difficult to understand. Kids suffering from PTSD might be withdrawn or refuse to accept our help. We, as parents, might feel helpless in getting our kids the help that they need, as our kids dive into maladaptive coping skills and create more issues. PTSD causes the brain to re-wire itself. People suffering cannot simply “get over it.” They need work and time to heal as the brain needs to rewire itself back to optimal means of functioning. EMDR, group and individual therapy, and other treatments have been proven effective in treating trauma and PTSD. If your child is struggling to cope with past traumas, they might benefit from residential treatment in a safe and secure environment. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center can help you “get your kid back.” We are here to help your family’s fire burn brightest. To learn more, call us today at (303) 443-3343.

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