Why Are Children So Easily Traumatized?

Suppose you drop your favorite mug and the thing shatters to bits. Bummer. Time to fire up Amazon and get another one.

But suppose you don’t understand what Amazon is, you don’t know about buying and selling, you’ve never heard of mass production, and you don’t know what money is. Suppose you have no experience with thinking something’s fabulous one moment, then forgetting about it the next and going on to something else. Suppose you don’t have a long history of recovering from disappointments and being happily surprised by new discoveries. Then suppose you break an item that is very important to you. Naturally, you’ll assume it was the only one of it’s kind in existence. You’ll assume that your personal happiness is very dependent on that item being in your life. Therefore its destruction is an epic tragedy. Your future is now filled with sorrow. Your heart is broken. It’s time for tears.

Trauma is the result of you making certain kinds of assumptions about an experience you go through. The less life experience you have, the more prone you are to forming traumatic beliefs, which are conclusions that are so scary, depressing, or painful that they feel unbearable to live with.

Now in the world of adult trauma, many cases end up linked to experiences the adult had with his parents when he was younger. Is this because parents are inherently evil? No. The reason the parent-child relationship often ends up being a key factor in trauma cases has a lot more to do with the limitations of the child than the issues of the parent.

While it’s true that many parents treat their children rather rotten, this wouldn’t be an all out crisis if the child had options to easily escape the parent’s presence. What makes children so vulnerable to being trashed by their parents is the fact that they are forced to depend on their parents for basic necessities. Food, clothing, shelter, affirmation and positive physical touch are just some of the core needs children can’t supply for themselves. Instead, they must depend on their available guardians to give them these things. When that doesn’t happen, trauma usually results as the child draws wrong conclusions about why the guardians are withholding.

Parents who behave in ways that traumatize their kids often do so because they are grappling with their own trauma issues. Because trauma warps how humans perceive the world and themselves, it’s very easy for abusive parents to justify their behaviors to themselves and honestly not understand the damage they are doing. Because living in a state of trauma takes a heavy toll on internal resources, abusive parents often don’t have the resources they need to think about how they are affecting their kids, let alone try to fix problems. Combine a psychologically crippled parent with a vulnerable and dependent child and the result is often that the parent slowly worsens while the child ends up devastated.

Now because so many trauma cases start in the childhood years, there’s a whole crop of folks who talk about everyone having an “inner child” who never grows up and who must be appeased if you’re going to thrive as an adult. I personally don’t like the “inner child” metaphor because I feel it is inaccurate and reinforces a false stereotype that all trauma begins in the early years of life (see What is Your “Inner Child”?).

Adult Trauma

Anytime you are in a new kind of situation that you don’t have relevant life experience for, your vulnerability to becoming traumatized increases. Such situations don’t just occur for children, they occur for adults as well. The adult soldier who gets thrust onto a battlefield for the first time is highly prone to being traumatized. One of the key purposes of military training is supposed to be to minimize occurrences of trauma by slowly introducing soldiers to new, upsetting experiences, and then helping them interpret those experiences in non-traumatizing ways. But in real life, many countries do a very shoddy job of training their troops, and soldiers reach the field psychologically unequipped for the kinds of experiences they are about to have.

Any career that focuses on death, injury, and violence is far more of a trauma risk than careers that avoid these subjects. There are countless jobs in national defense, law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue, medicine, and even counseling that put adults at a very high risk of being traumatized. When trauma occurs in these situations, it’s not because your “inner child” is acting up. It’s because you are interpreting your situation in ways that you find unbearable to live with. If you are already dealing with trauma from previous life experiences, those issues will flare up as well when the new trauma occurs. But the point is that adults can become severely traumatized by events which happen in the adult years. Not everything reaches back to childhood.

Conclusion

Life experience, spiritual beliefs, and dependency on other humans are all key factors in determining how vulnerable someone is to being traumatized. Children simply haven’t clocked enough time on the planet to collect a lot of life experiences. Their lack of life experience makes them prone to accept any spiritual beliefs they are handed, even when those beliefs are causing them distress. And of course their inability to take care of themselves forces them to be very dependent on their guardians, and this causes them to attach extreme importance to how their guardians behave. All of these factors make children very easy to traumatize inside or outside of the home. The death of a pet, the death of a friend, social troubles at school, the loss of toys or other resources that they feel are critical–it just doesn’t take much to greatly distress a child, and if those fears aren’t properly addressed shortly after they form, trauma sets in.

Unlike many problems in life that naturally improve with time, trauma tends to grow worse over time. The only way to resolve trauma is to change the beliefs that are fueling it. Both children and adults can be guided through this process. Usually the earlier intervention starts, the faster recovery is.

When your kid is devastated by his hamster dying and you sit down with him and talk about the hamster going on to a happier life and then you talk about how great it would be to give a new lonely hamster from the pet store a happy home, you are instinctively trying to resolve your child’s trauma. The hamster’s death has caused many upsetting theories to spring up in your child’s mind, which you are now countering with more positive ideas. As you present a new, happier way to interpret the death of the hamster, your child’s mind latches on to the happier images and releases its own scary theories. Stress levels go down, and your child is soon engrossed with his new pet and totally over the first one. Many parents instinctively debrief their kids like this all the time without realizing the importance of what they are doing. By helping your child revise the way he is interpreting what happened to him, you help his mind and/or soul avoid getting stuck in chronic fear.

For more about the parent-child relationship, see The Creator Pull: Understanding the Unique Power of Biological Parents.

For more about resolving trauma, see Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs.

This post was written in response to a request.

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