July 2022 Newsletter: Traumatic Memories in Early Childhood, Triggers, and How to Co-Regulate
I have a hot topic for a HOT July edition of the Childhood Trauma Newsletter. This month I will focus on traumatic memories in young children, how they show up, and what you can do to help a child when an unconscious memory is triggered (activated). As a side note, you will notice I am starting to add the word "activated" in parentheses when using the word triggered. There is some buzz in the trauma field that the word triggered has lost its meaning, so I'm trying the word activated as a replacement for triggered to see how it fits. What do you think? Feel free to let me know.
Research has demonstrated that young children and babies store memories of early trauma and loss in their emotional, preverbal memories. However, most babies do not form episodic memories (memories of events that happened) due to infantile amnesia - a phenomenon that is not fully understood at this time. Scientists think that rapid growth in the hippocampus - the memory center of the brain, prevents young children from storing long-term episodic memories.
Why do I bring this up? Because over and over again I hear from people that babies and young children don't remember early childhood trauma and loss and this is not true. Babies hold trauma in their physiology and in their emotional memories, but not with episodic memories the way that older children do.
Regardless of the child's age, trauma and early separation from primary caregivers is stored in the memories of young children. These trauma memories can resurface in the child's emotional reactions to triggers (or activations) in their environment, often without conscious awareness. Triggers are information from inside and outside our bodies that tip us off to traumatic memories. These traumatic memories involuntarily activate the body's fight, flight, fawn, and freeze responses. Again, this typically happens beneath the child's conscious awareness.
To give you some context, here is a fictitious and overly simplistic story about how an external input can trigger a child with a trauma history.
When Michael was a baby, he was left home alone at night without adult supervision while his mother went to work. Each night before she said goodbye to him, she would spray herself with her favorite perfume.
Nine years later, Michael is a student in Mrs. Kent's class. Michael frequently gets into trouble in Mrs. Kent's classroom and has difficulty paying attention to assignments. Nobody knows, but Mrs. Kent wears the same perfume as Michael's mom when he was a baby. The smell of mom's fragrance triggers (activates) a pre-verbal memory from the trauma Michael experienced as a toddler. Now, whenever Michael smells this perfume at school, his brain remembers the fear of being left alone, helpless, and afraid. He can't focus on learning and following directions, but he doesn't know why. His body feels out of his control and ready to flee! Michael learns that if he gets into trouble, he will be sent out of the room where he can no longer smell the perfume (and his brain and body feels safe again). Michael can't verbalize or explain why he acts out in this classroom. All he knows is the feeling of wanting to escape.
This resurfacing of old emotions is the "memory," even though he was too young to recall what he saw or heard with his eyes and ears as a baby.
As I said earlier, this story simplifies a very complex psychological process for the sake of storytelling and explaining how unconscious memories sometimes play out in real life. (To learn more about how smell is tied to early traumatic memories, click HERE.)
The purpose of this story is to remind us that young children have memories tied to early childhood trauma, even if they cannot verbalize what they are. The child's behavior signals that something in the environment is triggering (activating) the child. In these situations, caregivers must find a way to soothe the child and help him feel safe again. The trauma responses are likely to decrease when safety and connection are restored.
How can we help children feel safe when their big emotions come up?
Stay calm. Getting angry only scares a child more
Whisper, use few words, but be present
Repeat "You are safe, I am here for you."
Wait. Wait. Wait. The big feelings will pass, usually in under 20 minutes
Validate the feelings with true empathy. Put yourself in the child's shoes.
Encourage physical movement to discharge the stress hormones, ex.) Rocking, jumping, running, pushing against a wall
If you can't stay calm, step away and splash cold water on your face (as long as the child is safe)
Trauma Resource of the Month
Infographic: How Trauma Impacts Four Different Types of Memory. From The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.
The brand new #988 Suicide Prevention Hotline is now available for use, and it is my Trauma Champion for July! If you or someone you know is thinking about harming yourself or someone else, you can dial 988 on your phone 24/7/365 to get help! Please spread the word. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for children ages 15-24. Suicide is preventable. Talk to your children and ask them, "are you thinking about killing yourself?" It never hurts to ask. NOT asking is more dangerous than asking. Suicidal thoughts are common, and most people have them at some time or another. Stay calm, let the child know it is a common experience, and find them help immediately. Always take threats of suicide seriously, no matter what! If you don't know where to turn, dial 988.
I didn't have time to invite a Trauma Champion to the July newsletter, so instead, I'm going to give you a second free resource! Click HERE for a straightforward explanation of the Window of Tolerance, a tool to help you understand whether or not a child's nervous system is functioning at an optimal level, along with infographics.
My family just recovered from our first Covid infection. It was not pretty. We are all okay, but if I seem a little quiet on social or this newsletter is subpar, I blame Covid. Besides this past week we've been having a fun summer of beach time mixed with work. My daughter, who is six, went wakeboarding for the first time this week and she loved it! In August I am looking forward to my brother coming to visit and a trip to Greenport, NY - a charming seaside village on the end of Long Island to visit my family. If you've never been, I highly recommend it!
On September 22nd, I will be the Keynote Speaker at the Kentucky G.A.P. Conference! I am honored to take the stage to share trauma-responsive parenting skills for grandparents raising their grandchildren. The G.A.P. organization will also purchase a bulk order of my book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan, to give to some audience members. They are expecting 300+ people in attendance. So if you live in K.Y. and are raising a relative's child, please join us in Lexington on 9/22/22!
This week I am presenting to West Virginia CASAs on July 19th and 20th in a two-part training called "Understanding Ambiguous Loss and How to Help Youth Recover." Ambiguous loss (AL) is an unresolved loss that doesn't have to include death. However, without proper care, AL can lead to symptoms of trauma and suicidal behavior. Some common examples of AL are moving, divorce, time in foster care, a parent with dementia, or a family member with substance use disorder (among many others). To learn more about Ambiguous Loss in the child welfare system, check out my recent webinar HERE.
A new blog post is up at BethTyson.com, Debunking the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief and 10 Tips for Staying Attached to the Deceased. There's a common belief that when someone dies our connection with them ends, but this does not have to be the case. Please take a few minutes to read about my journey through 17 years of grief and how I found a way to maintain a relationship with my dead loved ones.
Please take a moment to forward this newsletter to a friend or colleague who might find it helpful. Also, if anyone reading this would like to subscribe, you can do so HERE.
Thank you for being a part of my community and coming together for the psychological well-being of children and families. If you would like to schedule time with me to chat about how I can help your business or organization become trauma-responsive, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note: Although I am a trained psychotherapist and a former trauma specialist, I no longer see individual clients. I now only work with organizations as a consultant, writer, speaker, and trainer.
With grief, hope, and love,
***This newsletter is for educational purposes only. Please contact a licensed mental health professional or dial 988 if you are experiencing a mental health crisis in your family.