Are they starting?
Oh, hold on!
You most certainly
They did not invite
But I’m tall —
I’ll lift you
Without us there,
History won’t be going
Are they starting?
Oh, hold on!
You most certainly
They did not invite
But I’m tall —
I’ll lift you
Without us there,
History won’t be going
Sometimes a resource comes along that distills complex concepts so they are instantly understandable in both theory and practical applications. The three minute clip below is one.
The children in the video do an excellent job explaining the brain’s structure, function, and response to fear. They detail what fear reactions can look like in behavior, how fear affects processing, and why it is so important that we understand how behavior is, in essence, communication.
It is a brief yet fantastic resource. I hope you watch. I hope you comment. I hope you share.
Children often make great teachers. These kids certainly do! Well done, everyone!
For detailed information on the ways fear and trauma affect language, development, behavior, and communication, go to: Communicating Trauma.
For information on the organization that produced the video above, go to: Trauma Recovery Centre
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.”
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.
She would learn everything about it, she promised herself, and details will no longer catch her unaware. The books soldiered on, and she with them. By closing-time she was educated and heartbroken: She knew what it was. She knew it was incurable.
There is no need to bludgeon
To hammer it home.
Butting heads is cathartic
But leaves no one informed.
Get points across kindly
For effective reform.
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If you take time
Who will sit
To listen …
Because what you
Is what you teach
For The Daily Post
Speak up for every girl.
For every woman, child.
For those who never had a say
Or book, or pen in hand.
Speak up for every girl
Who was shut up from choice
For every girl whose culture robbed
From future full of hope.
Speak up for girls who have no school
Who’re married before time,
Who men control with fear and pain
In violence, man-prowl, crime.
Speak up for every woman, child,
Trafficked, sold off, bound
For every one who’d been demeaned
Silenced, pushed around.
Speak up for girls who do not earn
Fair wages for fair work
Speak up for giving girls a voice
For futures they can mold.
Speak up so no more men teach boys
That women can be groped.
Speak up so no more women believe
Such men cannot be stopped.
Speak up for every girl who thinks
No one will care to know
Who worries rape will be about
Her face, her clothes, her fault.
Speak up so every girl
Can have a safe return.
From classrooms, boardrooms, wells.
So every child is free to be
To write, to talk, to tell.
Speak up for women everywhere
From girlhood throughout life
For mothers, sisters, neighbors, wives.
Below is a good resource and simulation of stressful situations that can be immensely helpful to parents and caregivers. I especially recommend the ones involving “Family Support”: “Calm Parents, Healthy Kids” and “Building Family Bonds.” These scenario simulations inform, teach, and actively guide parents and caregivers through various scenarios of interactions with toddlers in commonly challenging situations.
The resource can be invaluable information for parents and caregivers who are inexperienced and/or may have had less than good enough parenting themselves, and who may not know how to facilitate clear, supportive interaction with their own children, especially under stress. The simulation is presented in a non-shaming, educational way, and provides the participant with an active role in choosing different ways of responding … and being able to see the possible reactions to them … It also allows the participant to ‘re-do’ situations so they can experience how better choices can bring better results …
Practicing is important for any skill, let alone for skills one needs to apply in stressful situations. The very way our brain processes information is affected when we’re stressed, so it helps to already know what to do beforehand. Also, our own stress and how we manage it gets communicated and passed onto children in our care. This makes it doubly important to learn and practice (and then be able to model) new skills when one is calm and in neutral situations–as this simulation allows one to do.
Calm, informed caregivers help raise calm, healthy, competent kids. This can help!
I highly recommend you take a look and see:
When I grew up, television was a very small part of daily life, and was the only screen in the house. Telephone conversations were usually brief (and attached to the wall through the cord in the main room of the house, they only allowed limited privacy). Most daily interactions were face-to-face. Social interaction with peers and siblings certainly were face to face.
Now most homes in developed countries have several screens in different configurations: TVs, laptops, computers, tablets, phones, game consoles, DVD players, other interactive toys that come with a screen.
Children spend a lot more time facing a screen than they ever did. What is the impact of that?
Like every tool, screen media is neither good nor bad–it is HOW you used it and HOW MUCH you used it and what it DISPLACES that matters.
In this electronic age, children have more access to more education materials in quicker and more convenient ways than ever before. Media and information are powerful, but not neutral: If not taught how to discern information on the web, children do not learn how to conduct research or pick out primary source or secondary source, how to identify fact from biased blog or a complete fallacy. They may believe everything they read online–both truth and blatant misrepresentations. They need to be taught how to use information, how to cross-check, how to learn.
Education with the use of screens has replaced some of the methods of learning that were used in not-too-long-ago times. They have benefits and limitations. They can replace some older methods of research and increase efficiency and effectiveness of learning. They can connect people from far places to work together. They can bridge over differences and stigmas. However, they can also displace the interactive collaboration of listening, analyzing other people’s opinions and views, and working together interactively in real space (rather than over the internet in shared documents or through ‘attachments’ or searching to copy other people’s reports through google …).
Outside of educational screen time (i.e. the time children spend watching screens for learning, whether formal or informal), there are also the many hours a week that children spend playing or gazing at movies or music videos, or in texting incomplete sentences in stunted spelling to their friends on social media or phones. These hours often displace actual face-to-face interactions and all that comes with them: reading social cues, body language, emotions, tone of voice. Electronic communication is a poor substitute to actual interaction. Emoticons are a very crude representation of people’s facial expressions, and while they can lend ‘color’ to a message, they are not the real deal.
Children who spend too many hours staring at screens spend too few hours interacting with others and learning skills for interpersonal communication, for reading other people’s emotions and body language, for taking turns and listening.
In an article on NPR, about “Kids and Screen time–what does the research say”, researchers found that removing screen time (and effectively, the replacing of that back with social interaction and TALKING TO EACH OTHER and engaging with others), helped children be more able to recognize facial expressions. The benefits were significant even after five days of no screen time.
While some people advocate total electronics removal … I am not an advocate of removing all electronics: we live in a time where media and internet, email and web searches are enormous tools. It would be a form of social isolation to cut children off from the ability to interact with the world. However, it can be unhelpful to have too much screen time, as it displaces other kinds of social engagement that are just as important. Children do not know what they are missing when they stare at screens instead of interact with people–it is our job and responsibility as adults to help them learn to communicate and socialize.
Infants learn how to interact, how to engage, how to interpret communication and intent–through facial expression and through immediate dyadic interaction in many different settings over many interactions. It is a learning that continues throughout childhood and into young adulthood (and some may say, throughout the lifespan). We need to be mindful of not displacing personal interaction with screen time.
It is possible to do both–though that calls for moderation and boundaries (things that children need to learn, anyway). Additionally, it needs to be not only the children … adults who spend all their times staring at a little screen are displacing time of interaction WITH their children and are becoming models for what we do not want to reinforce.
There is no one recipe that would work for everyone–the right balance is different for different people at different times. What does make sense to me, is to be mindful and be honest:
* Create windows of time when screens are not used in your home: a ‘curfew’ time for phones, or an evening a week without any electronics, a ‘no virtual communication’ weekend day, maybe decide on no electronics in mealtimes (basic politeness, that …), or on other ways to limit screen time. For everyone.
Young children, especially, are vulnerable to not developing what they SHOULD be developing. If their little faces are stuck to a screen rather than interested in another person, and if their interactions are the brief raising of eyes (or the parent’s brief raising of eyes) from a screen to nod or follow a direction; they would not learn how to engage well, they would not know to be good communicators, or listeners, or readers of social gestures, facial expressions, body-language, and signs.
This is not an either/or. Electronics and screen time, interpersonal social time: It can be an and/and, but it needs to be mindful, lest we raise a generation of children who do not how to interact … and fail them by not providing them the opportunities they needed to learn.
To read the article: “Kids and Screen Time–what does the research say” on NPR, click on the title, or click below:
What if there is an exposure that affects health and development dramatically and is more prevalent than HIV, cancer, and Hepatitis combined and yet most doctors do not screen for it? What if you knew of an exposure that increases the risk for heart disease, diabetes, early death, inflammatory diseases, premature birth, metabolic syndrome, depression, anxiety, suicide, and more? What if that exposure was at the base of many learning disabilities, attention issues, and behavior issues and if there was a lot to do to help reduce this risk?
Wouldn’t you want to know about it?
Wouldn’t you want it to be treated as a priority in healthcare and public interest? I know I would, and do. Nadine Burke Harris is sure, too. Listen to her amazing Ted Talk–this is a brief talk that you’ll want to pass along!
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