Trauma leaves devestating marks, even if you can’t see a thing
My son is in kindergarten. He is a sensitive little boy — very sweet and innocent. Unfortunately, he does not know how to be aggressive when he needs to be. As a result he has been an easy victim for the rougher boys in his class. I recently learned — when he started refusing to go to school in the morning — that he has been assaulted by his classmates many times in the bathroom during recess breaks. Of course, I immediately spoke to the teacher and, baruch Hashem, the matter was attended to promptly and professionally.
I know that this won’t be happening again. However, someone suggested that I take my son to a psychologist for some “preventative” treatment. Is that really necessary? Once I assured him that he is safe, he started going back to school. He looks fine. The teacher told me everything is normal and I should just forget it — he’s already over it. She even suggested that stirring things up by talking about it at this point might make things worse. Is she right?
Forty Year Old Pain
Someone from my elementary school days decided to organize a 40-year school reunion for my grade. At the time of the reunion, we women were already in our 50s (except for me, who had magically stayed 35 during that 20 year period....). At the reunion, I met a kindergarten classmate whom I had not seen for four decades. Immediately after greeting me, she asked, “Do you remember what that awful (kindergarten) teacher used to do to that little boy David? Do you remember how she’d spank him in front of the class every time he wet his pants and how she’d say he was a baby who needed diapers? I have never gotten over that!”
What didn’t she get over? First of all, it didn’t even happen to her! And actually, while I only had faint memories of what happened to David, I never got over the time that same teacher spanked me in front of the class for playing in the school parking lot. The humiliation burned a road in my brain.
Of course, I had needed discipline for engaging in a dangerous activity, but that particular form of education came with a high price. The emotional consequence was significant enough to my brain (as was David’s experience to my classmate’s brain) to leave an indelible life long disturbance. Interestingly, I was so embarrassed at the time that I never even told my parents what had happened that day. I probably looked the same as usual to them. I wonder how David looked.
Five-year-old children don’t wear signs saying, “My brain has just been permanently wired with a trauma network.” On the contrary, small children go about their daily affairs — playing, fighting, whining, eating, laughing, crying — pretty much the same whether they’ve been busy recording traumatic events or not. Even a young child who has just suffered the loss of a parent can look “the same as usual.” However, just because adults cannot see what is happening in the youngster’s brain, does not mean that nothing significant is happening there. In fact, the utter helplessness of small children makes them much more vulnerable to brain damage caused by traumatic events than older people are.
A traumatic event is any occurrence in which a child is overpowered (by peers or adults) and hurt by them (physically or emotionally). A traumatic event is characterized, first and foremost, by helplessness. When a child — or adult — is trapped, rendered helpless, and experiences or witnesses, physical or emotional mistreatment, special neural networks are laid down in the brain. This is the damage caused by traumatic events.
No one outside the person — no parent, teacher, principal, rabbi, or anyone else — can see what has happened inside the brain. Nonetheless, traumatic neural networks — especially those laid down in young childhood — can affect a person negatively for the rest of his or her life. This is a scientific fact.
Modern brain research has revealed the very physical nature of the traumatized brain. However, even without brain scanning technology, anyone who is looking can easily spot the long arm of trauma. Cycles of family abuse, children who reject Yiddishkeit, people who become bullies and terrorists, people who are repeatedly victimized, people who suffer myriad chronic pain syndromes, people who develop addictions, people who cannot function appropriately in adulthood, people who have personality disorders, people who have life-disrupting symptoms of anxiety — all of these dysfunctions can arise from unhealed traumatic memories.
Should you take your traumitized little boy who looks perfectly normal to a psychologist? Yes, of course.