The entire community is responsible
for a child’s well-being.
Everything is about relationships. Our interpersonal relationships with children are those that most people are aware of. However, as adults, there is a communal relationship we have to children that most people are unaware of – and in many ways, it is one that is just as important. Yes, even if you don’t have kids of your own, the children in your community are still paying attention to you. Will you pay attention to what they are learning from YOU?
Childhood trauma is complex. There is much written about the causes, results, adult implications and brain pathways all related to childhood trauma. Yes, it is important for us to be conscious in the way we speak to children. It is also about what we say AROUND children, what they are exposed to and what they are learning from the environment. YOU are part of that environment.
I’m going to talk to you about how we unknowingly contribute to childhood trauma – and how you can help reduce that trauma in children.
Let’s call this environmental trauma.
I will also address how the education system contributes to trauma and how we can stop that, too. It’s time that we start thinking about our children differently than we have for ages. The time is over for us to be doing things as we always have – in all the ways we raise kids.
Our children are not commodities. They are not our possessions. They are not ours to mold into little versions – and then big versions of ourselves. They are their own sovereign selves seeking love, compassion and guidance from us. They have their own unique dreams, ideas, visions, and gifts for humanity.
Childhood Trauma is an epidemic.
Children are growing up in all parts of their being in the same chaotic world we are navigating and reacting to daily. The difference is simple: They have developing brains, bodies and psyches – we do not.
Trauma in children is a very heavy and difficult topic to discuss, but it is critical that we do so. Childhood today is so different from your own. Today’s children are experiencing:
- Constant testing in school
- Massive amounts of homework at younger and younger ages
- Nonstop information overload via technology
- Nonstop and often unstructured access to technology, social media and the internet (twice the time parents think, according to the study I linked to)
- Social media bullying, pressures to present a certain persona and compete with strangers in bizarre and often dangerous stunts
- Complicated social lives with the inclusion of so much technology and instant access to other youth in unstructured, unsupervised ways
- Exhaustion from being over-scheduled
- A lack of sufficient (if any) free, play or creative time in school, adversely affecting growth and causing anxiety and depression
- A push to meet media and pop culture standards for how they should look, dress, act and engage with the opposite sex (infographic from this article summarizing how social media multiplies peer pressure)
- A lack of down time or unstructured time during which to process the massive amounts of information, interactions and stimuli they experience
- An insufficiency or even lack of contact with nature or being outdoors.
All of this is leading to more children who are living with and diagnosed with stress, anxiety, depression and other traumatic disorders.
Childhood Trauma is becoming a totally normal part of childhood and that HAS TO STOP.
In thinking about how I wanted to structure this article, I decided to break it down into pieces and organize it in some memorable way. Often, in school, teachers use the letters of a word to teach it’s meaning or tell a story.
What if TRAUMA were an acronym?
I’ve broken down the parts of Childhood Trauma into six parts: The problems, and the ways you can help to change and reduce environmental trauma.
T. TALK. TRAUMA. TODAY. We need to TALK about TRAUMA, and we need to talk about trauma in children TODAY. Why? Because countless children are currently experiencing fear, depression, anxiety, loneliness, desperation, helplessness, shock, abuse and terror. Can you imagine an 8 year old feeling a sense of terror? It is happening, and more than you think. We cannot define TRAUMA by any of these emotions alone because every single child grows up experiencing childhood in her own way. Even two children living in the same household, with the same two parents, the same resources at home, and the same meals for dinner are experiencing their childhoods in vastly different ways. Where one child may be far more sensitive than another, or more commonly sensitive to different stimuli, another child may be born with innate abilities to cope and handle the triggers that may manifest as trauma in the first child.
We know what trauma is and we know it is negatively impacting our children but we cannot remove all of the triggers in one purge. We cannot plan for and clean our school environments of all of the triggers that are causing trauma for our children. We absolutely must look at the very obvious and pervasive sources of trauma in our schools, including testing, bullying, reprimanding girls for their attire, and so on. By looking at these common triggers, we can begin to make education and the school environment less traumatic.
R. REAL. REALITY. Childhood trauma is REAL. The reality for too many children is that they feel unsafe, unprotected and unloved at points throughout their day. The experience of this vulnerability is indeed essential to a growing child’s maturity and developing brain. These unsafe realities can be experienced by a child and yet not morph into trauma when a child has a “safe place to land”.
What is a safe place to land? It is a loving adult, a caring teacher, a protective parent, or a grown-up who is committed to maintaining an awareness of that child’s REALITY. The adult is one who is committed to providing a safe space for her in her own experience of the moment, allowing her to emote, processing with her what she has experienced, and helping her to feel safe in the process.
When a child is without such safe spaces, that young growing brain resorts to its own underdeveloped coping mechanisms. These immature responses, not based in reality but rather in the child’s head and internal world, develop into neural pathways of trauma. A fear-filled external REALITY that is void of safe spaces and safe relationships with caring adults creates a mis-developed REALITY inside the mind and emotional body of a child.
This is where Childhood Trauma is born.
A. As in the Letter Grade A; as in “Wonderful job, Johnny! You get an ‘A'”! Every child within the education system has been indoctrinated into the hierarchy of achievement that places the letter “A” at the top, and by its own definition, automatically defines all other grades a child may be marked by. Labeled with. It is very commonly known by teachers, that students who were marked with the letter “A” will be expected to produce more A work, and are more likely to be graded at the same level consistently. The same is true for a “B” student, a “C” student and so on. It’s true: Students are pigeonholed into a range of grades more than you think.
Receiving a “grade” (any grade, for that matter) is typically a traumatic experience for children, one that is the cause of much anxiety, fear, worry, and self judgment. The anxiety that comes from waiting to get an assignment or a test returned, to either sigh in relief at the site of a high-grade, or feel badly about himself at the site of a low-grade, is a normal experience for a young person. The mark of a teacher’s red pen – in the form of a scarlet letter “A” or “F” can be equally traumatizing to a student.
Year after year, test after test, attempt after attempt, children begin to define themselves by their performance and what they believe is expected of them in the form of a grade. These beliefs reinforce neurological pathways defining a students sense of self. All for the sake of (and anxious hope for) a simple letter “A”.
Our education system is so enculturated with the concept of grading and ranking our pupils. We have made attempts to design new methods of assessment such as core competencies and project-based learning that allow students to express more creativity and demonstrate more knowledge, but ultimately, the system itself relies on and requires us to boil down all student performance into a letter or a number when it’s all said and done.
So what’s the big deal with letters and numbers?
Letters and numbers are required for college applications; college is a minimal requirement for a middle-class future or breaking out of poverty. Letters and numbers cause a tremendous amount of trauma in their overtly defining nature of a child. Letters and numbers correlate with success, mediocracy or failure. And, as we have seen, letters and numbers define a young child’s performance later in life, equating academic achievement with earning potential (which is also directly correlated to family income/class and racial inequities, but that’s another article for another time). It is a deep, dark rabbit hole to enter when we think more deeply about the impact of a simple letter grade on a child’s sense of self: his self-confidence, self-worth, and his trajectory in life. I really don’t have space or time to address here how race and poverty play into grading, but I will say this: Students are whole beings who enter our school buildings carrying the burdens of their families, communities and society’s many labels. It’s an uphill battle for most students before the first bell even rings.
U. As in YOU. You play a role in childhood trauma. Whether you are aware of it or not, you are a member of a community that exists around hundreds, if not thousands of children. YOUR attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, choices, behaviors, involvement or lack thereof contribute to a growing child’s sense of self. If YOU walk by a child and do not acknowledge, smile or make eye contact, a message is communicated to that young person. Yes, this is a very innocuous moment, and there are far more sinister and neglectful things that adults do in the lives of children, but I invite you to consider – and reframe your thinking about – how you relate to the children who occupy the same space you do.
A child may hear you yelling on a phone conversation, and take this information in to their developing brains and file it into their forming definition of who adults are and what their behaviors mean. YOU consist of so many subtleties and micro-behaviors – moments that probably escape your awareness or consciousness 99% of the time. As adults, we are making decisions and taking actions in every moment, demonstrating with the ACT OF LIVING our lives, what it means to be an adult and a member of a community.
Most of your fellow adults have become numb to such things, or have tuned them out in an effort to focus on or survive within the context of their own lives. But, that child in the grocery store waiting in line with her stressed-out mother, or the teenager you cross paths with on the street, or the students in the school building you walk past every day are learning from your choices whether you are aware of it or not.
What choices can you make in small and seemingly insignificant moments in your everyday life to have a positive and potentially lasting impact on the life of a young person? How can you be a bright spot for a child and help reduce the effects of trauma elsewhere in that child’s life? What difference can YOU make?
YOU can make a difference – and it may take no effort at all. YOU lose nothing by smiling or speaking politely to a young person who is literally going through life, observing everything, and defining herself by the ways other people respond to her.
M. MEANING. What meaning do you give to things? What MEANING do children give to the things they experience, see, hear or witness? Let me tell you little story about a moment that traumatized me as a child:
I was maybe 8 or 9 years old at the time, and in Girl Scouts. I was in the car of a college student who was an adult chaperone in our Girl Scout troop for a trip to a state park. We went to the park, and I remember sitting on a bench overlooking the lake. My chaperone sat on the bench next to me with her friend who joined us at the park. I sat there listening to the conversation between the two women. They were talking about drinking. They were laughing, and talking about drinking a lot and being drunk. I sat on the bench in a quiet and growing state of panic. I knew that drinking and driving was wrong. I knew that the one young woman was driving me home. Her behavior was different and concerning to me.
What I understood, from my limited snapshot of the conversation happening on the other end of that bench meant that I was about to get into a car with a girl who had too much to drink and would be “drinking and driving me home”. I was scared to death. I was too scared to speak up and ask about what I just heard because I was afraid of being in trouble. I panicked and I prayed. [Side note: This is why I work hard to find ways to teach students – especially girls – how to find their voices and have the confidence to speak their truth.]
My young self did not have the resources to know what to do in this situation. There were no cell phones back then, I was miles from home and totally unaware of where I was. There were no other adults near us, and I could see no options for me to avoid getting in a car with someone I perceived as intoxicated based on her conversation. This experience traumatized me a great deal. The fact that I understood it years later as a college student myself did not erase the damage that this moment had done years earlier. The MEANING my 9 year old self associated with that conversation caused trauma that affected me for years to come.
When we, as adults, are not being responsible with our interactions, behaviors, and the topics we choose to discuss around children, they are left to associate meanings with experiences from their young and impressionable perspectives. In my case, I had been exposed to alcoholism already and was scared by stories told to us via the D.A.R.E. and M.A.D.D. programs at my elementary school. Many moments with children are teaching moments. If adults are conscious of how they behave around children, they can find those teaching moments and create safe spaces and valuable learning opportunities for young developing minds. Will you ask yourself: What potentially traumatic MEANINGS do my behaviors and choices around children leave open to their child’s view interpretation?
A. ALL of us. It is up to all of us, the entire community, to be conscious of and responsible for how our children are growing up within our tribes. You may not perceive yourself as being a member of any tribe or any village within your community, but you are simply by being in it. If we ALL take a moment to remember back to our own childhoods, our own traumas, our own needs, wishes, and hope for loving adults in frightening moments, then we will surely see the need and the opportunity to pay that role forward. You are part of the ALL.
The only way childhood trauma will ever become a thing of the past, is if childhood itself is held tenderly in the hands and hearts of ALL OF US.
All of these factors contribute to a child’s reality. Their reality will become a significant part of your own future reality. They need you to show up in their community – YOUR community too – in a conscious and positive way.
About the Author:
Amy L. Carrier is an advocate for children, true education reform that puts children first and community engagement in the classroom. She has been building new solutions in education since 2000. She is known for empowering teens to become entrepreneurs teaching them how to create their own unique solutions to problems in their communities. Amy has been interviewed on CNN about teaching business and entrepreneurship in schools.