Riding in the car on the way to school this morning, my daughter asked, “Mom, what is human trafficking?” Talk about a sucker punch.
My daughter is processing SO MUCH lately. Hard topics such as human trafficking are not something I was prepared to deal with today, alongside known trauma triggers such as bio-family stuff like I wrote about on Friday, bad dreams like I wrote about HERE recently, or acting out behaviors like at the zoo over the holidays. Heck, I wasn’t even fully awake yet. I am NOT a morning person. So, what did I do? I took a big breath. I let it out. Then, I answered her with a question of my own. “Honey, were you talking about human trafficking in youth group last night?”
Well, yes. It was THE topic of discussion last night.
Another deep breath in. Another deep breath out.
I kept driving. I gave her a broad definition of what human trafficking meant. She asked a few more questions. She told me some more things her small group leader told her about the topic. I told her that yes, those things were sadly true. Then I said I wished the youth leaders told parents when they were going to be dealing with such hard topics. She said, “Me, too.”
Then she asked, “What about alcoholics?” I asked in return, “What about them?” She rolled her eyes and told me that she is probably going to be an alcoholic, as well as poor, when she grows up. I asked her why she thought that and she said it was because they discussed it in Sunday School yesterday. She said that “people who grow up with alcoholic parents become alcoholics, and people who grow up poor stay poor.” Whether it was discussed QUITE that way or not, I don’t know, but I do know she was triggered by the discussion. So was Youngest Son. He confirmed that this was the discussion.
Unfortunately, not enough people working with traumatized kids know enough about them or their needs. More training is needed – really needed – for anyone working with children. This education should be part of any teacher training, youth & children’s ministry training, or sports/recreation training. We trauma mamas need to figure out a way to make this happen!
Traumatized kids tend to see things as black and white. There are no gray areas. It doesn’t matter if they’re 6 or 16. Something either is, or it isn’t. They think, “If I had alcoholic parents, I will be an alcoholic.” That’s a traumatized brain. There are no gray areas that say, “I HAD alcoholic parents, but now I’m being raised in a safe, functional family and I can overcome my past. I can learn skills that will help me navigate life in a more healthy way.” Likewise, even though they’ve been told many times, there is no ability to remember that God is in the business of redemption when our kids are triggered.
Black and white, or “all or nothing” thinking, is tied to the most primitive of human responses: flight or fight. Kids dealing with complex trauma, when triggered, are transported back to that primitive state of being in flight or fight mode, just as they were when the trauma first occurred. It is an automatic response on a very basic level. There is no rationalization. The brain in flight or fight mode cannot rationalize. It reacts. Because traumatized kids are triggered to believe their lives are in danger – that they may actually DIE -- there is no time for “if this” or “maybe that.” There is no room for gray. While a youth worker discussing social problems with the youth group may also discuss the redemption of God, or the ability to overcome hard beginnings with good nurturing, the brain of a traumatized kid already in flight or fight mode simply will not process this. There is no time for uncertainty when your life is threatened. You need to decide whether to run, or to stay and fight.
The amygdala, which is in the middle part of the brain, and the center for the fight/flight/freeze response, is fully functional at birth. That means that even a tiny baby is capable of a full blown trauma response. Even children who do not cognitively remember a traumatic event can still have that full blown trauma response stored in their amygdala. It “rewires” the brain for life. It does not go away with love and time. It can be triggered by events, actions, discussions, sights, smells, touches, and sensory experiences in the future.
The hippocampuses, where the brain assesses stimuli and tells us whether or not it is threatening, is not fully functional until a child is about five years old. The cortex – the front part of the brain where we can think and figure things out and rationalize -- is not fully mature until around age 12, sometimes even older. This means that when a baby or young child is hurt and frightened, they have no way of understanding what is going on around them. The front part of their brain can’t rationalize what’s happening, so the middle part of their brain simply stores the trauma. That trauma causes black and white thinking (a flight or fight response), because they do not have the developmental capability to process levels of threat, nor the cognitive capability to even understand what’s happening.
Kids dealing with complex trauma CANNOT simply “get over it.”
The result of trauma triggers such as hearing, “people who grew up with alcoholic parents become alcoholics” is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy. In traumatized kids’ all or nothing thinking, they believe they are doomed to repeat their biological parents mistakes. They believe they are destined to BE their biological parents. Their already too well-established sense of being “damaged goods” is reinforced. In their black and white thinking, their beliefs about themselves are affirmed. The instruction of a well-meaning teacher or youth worker is twisted to a belief that is exactly opposite of what any caring adult would intend.
In addition to education for people working with youth and children, parent notification is also essential when hard topics will be presented in the classroom or the youth meeting. Youth leaders and teachers should notify parents IN ADVANCE that they will be discussing hard topics with youth. Parents raising hurt children can then decide how best to prepare their child for the topic – or even whether or not to allow their child to participate in that discussion at all. Some parents may decide to prepare their child and also attend the session with the child. Still, the decision on how to best approach these topics with a traumatized child should be left up to the parent. Communication is the key. Teachers and youth workers should not depend upon children to communicate to parents that a hard topic is to be discussed, or that a documentary on a hard topic will be shown. One of the greatest challenges for parents of traumatized children is getting them to tell us anything! Adults need to communicate with adults. As parents, we are the ones who need to take the initiative.
As parents, we need to be the ones talking to our kids’ teachers, youth leaders, and coaches. We need to be proactive, and not reactive (often the “fight” of flight or fight response) ourselves. Communicate with the adults in your child’s life. Perhaps offer some training. The FACT SHEETS I posted on this blog are a good tool and can be adjusted to help youth leaders outside the classroom as well as for teachers. There are also some good resources posted HERE. Feel free to share in the comments section additional resources or links to sites you have found helpful.