“I Go In The Closet In My Head”

Trauma and Dissociation in Children Living with Domestic Violence

(Originally published in ISSTD News, October 2018)
hiding-1209131_1920

Photo: Pixabay

 

Eli, age seven, lives with his younger sister, Marianne, age four, and their mother, Lisa, in New York City. They had lived in a domestic violence shelter for a year, and before that with his stepfather, Mark, till Lisa fled with the kids following repeated violence. Huddled in his bed, Eli had often heard his stepdad beating his mother. He’d wait helplessly till she sought refuge in the children’s room once Mark stormed out. She’d sob herself to sleep on the floor by his bed as he lay awake, worrying his stepdad would return and hit her more.

Mark was the only father Eli knew. His biological father left shortly after he was born. Eli adored his stepdad. He loved it when Mark took him to the park and showed him “how to build muscles” on the monkey-bars. He also hated Mark for hurting his mother, and felt guilty for admiring the very strength that brutalized her. When one night his bruised mother took him, still in pajamas, to a “hotel for mommies,” Eli wanted to go back home. He cried and screamed and it made his mother cry. One of the shelter’s women told Eli he was being “selfish” and that if he “wanted to grow up to be a decent man” he would “stop hurting his mom.” Eli felt confused. Was he hurting his mommy like his stepdad hurt her? Sometimes his stepdad would apologize in the morning and say “he didn’t know his own strength.” Did Eli also not know his own strength? Did he hurt his mommy without meaning to?

Eli stopped fussing, but he still missed his stepdad. There were no dads in the shelter, only whiny babies, toys big kids wouldn’t share, and mommies with scared eyes and scary bruises. He didn’t like it there. He couldn’t go to his own school. He couldn’t see his friends or go to the park where he’d played catch with Mark. Instead, he had school in the shelter and played at the playroom where the carpet smelled funny. Eli tried to be good but still his mommy cried at night. Maybe he was hurting her by his thoughts of wanting to go home? He didn’t know how to stop wanting to go home.

Even when they finally left the shelter they didn’t go home. His mommy said their new apartment was “home, sweet home,” but it wasn’t. It wasn’t even near the park and he had a new school with different everything. Also, his mommy was scared again. She had a lot of locks on the door, and slept on the floor by his bed again. Like before. She cried even though Mark wasn’t there to hit her. Eli tried to take care of his mommy but he didn’t know how. He was doing it all wrong. He didn’t know what to do.

When I met Eli, he was repeating Kindergarten and showed difficulty with attending,
comprehending, and meeting academic demands. Teachers reported he could be talkative but mostly seemed to be “in his own little world” and frequently complained of stomach-aches, asking for his mother to take him home. His occasional explosive aggression led to questions about whether he needed a more restrictive environment “for the protection of everyone involved.” Both Eli and Marianne had attended a therapeutic play group at the shelter, and the counselor there noted that Eli had “tended to keep to himself” and was “always with one ear to the door, listening if his mom was okay.” The little boy hadn’t been aggressive toward others at the shelter, but the counselor wasn’t surprised to hear “some of that rage bubbled up eventually.”

“Lions are strong,” Eli emphasized. “They eat the deer.”
We had just finished reading a story about forest animals and their needs, and he seemed disappointed that no one got eaten.
“Yes,” he added, smacking his palm on the closed book. “Later, he’ll beat her up and then he’ll eat her. He can kill her …”
He shuddered and looked up at me and appeared a lot younger than seven. “That sounds very scary,” I noted gently.
He pointed to the deer on the cover of the book. “Can she hide?” he asked.
I nodded and pointed in the direction of a napkin. I wanted to give him space to go where he needed. It was obvious this wasn’t about deer and lions.
Eli took in a trembling breath.
“I hide.” He whispered and reached for my hand. “I hide inside the closet in my mind.”

It’s what he did when mommy was being hurt and when she cried and when he missed his stepdad and when he didn’t know what to do: he went inside the closet inside his mind. Not the real closet, where people can find you, but a better one, in his head: A closet where only he could open the doors, where no bad sounds or smells got in. It wasn’t scary in his closet, just quiet. But sometimes he forgot to open the doors and pay attention and the teachers said he wasn’t a good listener and kids said he was stupid. His mommy told him that if she kept missing work to take him home from school she’d lose her job and they’d lose their apartment. But he worried about her. He heard her tell a friend on the phone that she was scared Mark would shoot her at work. Like on TV. He wanted mommy to take him home so she won’t be at work where Mark can come. And sometimes he thought he heard scary Mark coming so he’d jump out of his closet fast and hit but then people told him he was being bad, too. It made him want to go back in the closet inside his head but he needed to look after his mother. He was “the man of the house” now. He didn’t know what to do.

Exposure to domestic violence hurts children (Edleson 1999, Sousa et al 2011). Witnessing violence impacts children as much—and sometimes more—than being hit. It is unbearable to a child to be helpless to save the caregiver they need, and it can be even worse when the one harming the caregiver is also someone the child depends on. Children often convince themselves that the violence—and its prevention—is somehow theirs to control (Levendovksi et al 2003, Sousa et al, 2011). In a child’s mind, if only they were better, quieter, and less needy, the people they rely on would not become terrified or terrifying.

The very words that accompany domestic violence can be confusing. Did mom “ask for it?” Did stepdad “only hit her because he loved her?” Does saying “I’m sorry” mean it didn’t happen? Unable to make sense of what is happening around them, children—like Eli retreating into his “closet inside his mind”—might shut-down and dissociate. They can appear unemotional and numb, stop attending, and fall behind socially and at school. They might mirror the aggression they’d seen. Very often children feel guilty if they love the person who hurts the other person they love, and guilty for hating the person they love for hurting another person they love. They rarely have the words or space to describe any of this. Children who apply dissociation to cope with terror and helplessness may also shut down at reminders of the trauma, reinforcing dissociation and resulting in children who are less available for processing information and utilizing available support (Siegel 2012, Silberg 2013, Wieland 2011, Yehuda 2005, 2016).

Even after a parent flees domestic violence, strain often continues, and children might mirror it in ways that reflect not only past trauma, but also current issues. A parent who escaped domestic violence can still be vulnerable. They might still be scared. They might have limited financial, social, and emotional resources. Children sense this, and may hide their own difficulties to protect the parent from distress. When feelings of resentment, anger, worry, or grief inevitably overwhelm them, the children can feel doubly guilty. Unfortunately, just as Eli was scolded at the shelter, children might be chided if they misbehave and be told “there’s already enough to deal with.” They might dissociate to avoid added shame and helplessness. They might become hyper-aware of the parent’s mood and try to accommodate it (Ostrowski et al 2007, Lyons-Ruth & Block 1996).

A loss of home—even the mere risk of it—can be overwhelming and preoccupying, leaving children anxious, wary, worried, angry, or withdrawn. The parent may be managing depression, posttraumatic stress, financial insecurity, and grief; all of which can inadvertently reinforce unhealthy dynamics. This is why it is crucial anyone who works with families fleeing domestic violence, understands children’s behaviors and the functions they serve.

Domestic violence hurts children. While children don’t always communicate their distress verbally, they almost always do so in their behaviors: In aggression and acting out, in shutting down, in falling behind, in what they won’t talk about, in what they do or cannot do (Silberg 2013, Waters 2005, 2016, Yehuda 2005, 2011, 2016). It is paramount we hear them, for our reaction may become the measure of whether they believe help is available.

Eli’s mother was depressed, but she was also determined to keep her children safe and to minimize the impact of trauma on their future. She entered counseling to deal with her own unresolved history, and enrolled Eli in a therapeutic playgroup. She became more involved in his therapy with me, and learned to support his narrative when he spoke of his feelings, including difficult ones about the violence he’d witnessed. Together, at his request, we made a visual representation of the “closet inside his mind” using a shoebox that the two of them painted to fit his inner representation. Eli was able to put his “big feelings” into the closet-box for safe keeping so that he can attend better at school. He was delighted when his mother made a small blanket for his closet “so even the biggest feelings can be cozy and safe.”

With his mother less frightened and himself less alone, Eli was able to let in play, instruction, joy, and praise. His explosive aggression ceased, and he was catching up on language, academics, and friendships.

“Remember when I told you about my closet in my mind?” he said at one of our sessions. “I don’t need to hide there anymore. It’s old and it’s too small for me,” he added without judgment. “I was little, but now I can speak up and if I get scared I can go to mommy or the teacher … or you. I don’t need that closet. The bad memories can rest there.”

 

Bibliography:
Edleson, J.L. (1999). Children’s witnessing of adult domestic violence, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14:839-870.

Levendosky, A.A., Huth-Bocks, A.C., Shapiro, D.L., Semel, M.A. (2003). The impact of domestic violence on the maternal–child relationship and preschool-age children’s functioning, Journal of Family Psychology, 17(3):275–287.

Lyons-Ruth, K., Block, D., (1996). The disturbed caregiving system: Relations among childhood trauma, maternal caregiving, and infant affect and attachment, Infant Mental Health Journal, 17(3):257-275,

Ostrowski, S.A., Norman, M.A., Christopher, C., Delahanty, D.L. (2007). Brief report: The impact of maternal Posttraumatic Stress Disorder symptoms and child gender on risk for persistent Posttraumatic Stress Disorder symptoms in child trauma victims, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 32(3):338–342.

Siegel, D.A. (2012). The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are, 2nd Edition, New York: The Guilford Press.

Silberg J.L. (2013). The Child Survivor: Helping Developmental Trauma and Dissociation, New York: Routledge Publishers.

Sousa. C., Herrenkohl, T.I., Moylan, C.A., Tajima A.E., Klika, J.B., Herrenkohl, R.C., Russo, M.J. (2011) Longitudinal study on the effects of child abuse and children’s exposure to domestic violence, parent–child attachments, and antisocial behavior in adolescence, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26(1):111–136.

Waters, F. (2005). When treatment fails with traumatized children. . .Why? Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 6:1–9.

Waters, F. (2016). Healing the Fractured Child: Diagnosis and treatment of youth with dissociation, Springer, New York.

Wieland, S. (Ed.) (2011). Dissociation in Traumatized Children and Adolescents: Theory and clinical interventions, Psychological Stress Series, Routledge Publishers.

Yehuda, N. (2005). The language of dissociation. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 6:9–29.

Yehuda, N. (2011). Leroy (7 Years Old)—“It Is Almost Like He Is Two Children”: Working with a dissociative child in a school setting, in Wieland’s (Ed.) Dissociation in Traumatized Children and Adolescents: Theory and clinical interventions, New York: Routledge, Psychological Trauma Series.

Yehuda, N. (2016) Communicating Trauma: Clinical presentations and interventions with traumatized children, Routledge, New York.

 

For more information about trauma and development: check the Resources, Trauma and Development and Publications pages on this site.

 

She Checks, Mate.

PHOTO PROMPT © Jeff Arnold

 

Matt tapped his lip and danced his foot but I knew it had nothing to do with planning his next move.

“Is your mom home?” he grumbled.

“Yep.”

“So?”

“She’s not going anyplace,” I answered.

“Not like she understands any of this.” Matt was too proud to admit that her presence affected his concentration.

“Tammy’s staying.”

He scowled but must’ve heard the edge in my voice, and dropped it.

No one messed with my little sister. Nonverbal doesn’t mean stupid. Also, Tammy was memorizing all his moves. She’d show me, and next time Matt and I play, I’d win.

 

 

For Rochelle’s Friday Fictioneers

 

Mirrored

mirrored R.RozenZvi

Photo: R. Rozen-Zvi

 

The soft brown curls

Sweetly turned back

Away from images

She’ll track

As she grows older

And discovers

Mirrored reflections

Of her self

And others.

 

 

For the Photo a Week Challenge: Through glass

 

 

Come Play!

Play SmadarHalperinEpshtein

Photo: Smadar Halperin-Epshtein

 

I can play in the tent

I can play with these balls

But to have you play with me

Is what I want most of all!

 

For Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Play

 

Baby Seated

well seated

Photo: Osnat Halperin-Barlev

 

In the shade

Out of sun

I am still

Having fun.

Even these

Stubborn bubbles

Will stop

Giving me troubles.

I’ll persist

And resume

Turning a chair

To a play room.

 

 

For the Pull Up a Seat Challenge

 

 

Come Play!

play NaamaYehuda

Photo: Na’ama Yehuda

 

My pink shoes are a mess

But I’m in no distress.

I have been in the dust

For elephants it’s a must.

I’m a fierce one, you see

Will you come play with me?

 

 

For the Tuesday Photo Challenge: Play

 

Find Your Métier

 

professions-in-english woodardenglish.com

 

Maybe it is healing

And the saving of lives,

Or the wonder of teaching

And forming young minds.

Maybe it is farming

To nourish and grow,

Or building the homes

For the shelter we know.

Maybe it is writing

Putting words to the page,

Or any vocation

That forms our age.

May it be that whatever

Strums your soul, fills your need

I pray that you find it

And its call you will heed.

 

Merriam-Webster’s word for July 1, 2018:

Métier

This post continues the blogging challenge in which Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day, serves as inspiration a-la the “Daily Prompt.”

Want to join me? Feel free to link to this post on your blog, and/or post a link to your blogpost in the comment section below so others can enjoy it, too. Poetry, photography, short stories, anecdotes: Go for it!

For more visibility, tag your post with #WordOfDayNY, so your post can be searchable.

“Follow” me if you want to receive future prompts, or just pop in when you’re looking for inspiration. Here’s to the fun of writing and our ever-evolving blogging community!

 

 

Cookie Share

round biscuit with heart jelly in center

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

“Now it’s my turn to ask you a question,” she said. “And you have to answer.”

“Fair enough,” I smiled. After all, I’d just subjected this child to a long list of questions to which she had to respond.

“What if,” she began, twinkle-eyed, “you had only one cookie, but you needed to share it with fifty kids?”

“Hmm …” I pondered. “That’s a tough one. One cookie only?”

“Yep!” She raised her eyebrows in satisfaction at what had to be my stupefied expression.

“Can I hand out something else instead?” I bargained.

“Nope. One cookie, fifty kids.” The eight-year-old was utterly too pleased with herself.

I smelled a rat but I wasn’t going to show it. She’d earned this after soldiering on through the difficult portions of the testing battery. “I give up.” I raised my hands in surrender. “I don’t see how I can split one cookie between fifty kids.”

“I never said how big the cookie had to be, did I?” she chortled. “If you have a gigantic humongous cookie it would be easy peasy to have everyone share it!”

 

 

For Cee’s Share Your World June-18-2018

Jabberwocky

down under SmadarHalperinEpshtein

Photo: Smadar Halperin-Epshtein

 

If the spoot

Got your boot

And the ptuk

Stole your truck,

It is time to call

A glonky

To clean up

This jabberwocky.

 

 

Merriam-Webster’s word for June 18, 2018:

Jabberwocky

This post continues the blogging challenge in which Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day, serves as inspiration a-la the “Daily Prompt.”

Want to join me? Feel free to link to this post on your blog, and/or post a link to your blogpost in the comment section below so others can enjoy it, too. Poetry, photography, short stories, anecdotes: Go for it!

For more visibility, tag your post with #WordOfDayNY, so your post can be searchable.

“Follow” me if you want to receive future prompts, or just pop in when you’re looking for inspiration. Here’s to the fun of writing and our ever-evolving blogging community!

 

Kind of Famous

Rose DvoraFreedman

Photo: Dvora Freedman

 

“I’ll be famous,” she said, twirling and eyeing her reflection in the mirror. She was wearing a particularly twirl-worthy skirt and a shiny pair of sandals.

“Yep, famous,” she repeated with finality. She spun a few more times then stopped mid-turn to face me. “Do you know what famous means?”

I raised an eyebrow in half-query, half-invitation. Children’s explanations are immensely more informing than anything I might attempt to guess at.

“It means everybody knows you and everybody likes you a lot.”

“It does?” I lent a slight undulation to my voice in what I hoped was just a smidge of challenge for the second part.

She’s a perceptive little one. She caught it. Paused. Frowned. Pursed her lips and pursed them again in front of the mirror to inspect the effect. “Well, everybody knows famous people,” she countered and puckered her lips a few more times to make a point. “But … maybe not everybody likes them?”

I smiled and raised my eyebrow again.

She straightened and crossed the room to lean into me. “Because some famous people can be bad?”

I wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Some. Sometimes people get famous but not for very good things.”

She nodded into my side. “Like Hitler and … you know?”

“Yes. Hitler … and some other people … are known for doing very very bad things.”

“I don’t want to be that kind of famous.”

I gave her a squeeze. “I understand. I wouldn’t worry … You are nothing like that … You have a beautiful, loving, caring heart. It’s not a bad thing to want to be famous. Most famous people aren’t bad. Most people in general aren’t bad. Famous and not famous ones.”

She leaned into me a moment longer. She knows hardship. Young as she is, the pain of cruel actions isn’t abstract to her.

I took a deep breath to remind her she was safe. She followed. Took another. Shook the pensive worry off and looked down into her magnificently twirl-worthy skirt.

“Well,” she stood and made a quick half-turn, watching the edges of the fabric lift and roil and dance and fly. “I’ll be the good kind of famous.” She walked back to the full-length mirror to reinspect her reflection. “The beautiful heart kind …”

 

 

 

For The Daily Post