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Wrinkles Are Your Super-Power

...if you are caring for a child who has survived trauma.

Vesnaandjic/iStockPhoto
Source: Vesnaandjic/iStockPhoto

In an ideal world, our children grow up believing that they are safe. Their brains develop templates of trust and joy. Their nervous systems remain calm and relaxed all the way up until they become well-adjusted adults.

The reality, though, is that we do not all live in ideal worlds. As much as we would like to shield our children, they may still be exposed to violence, loss, natural disasters, and even physical or sexual abuse.

Once that happens, children experience changes in the ways their brains process information. They may become hyper-vigilant, with their nervous systems ready to detect any signs of threat. They may become numb to stimuli such as their parents’ calm voices. They may react in ways that do not seem rational (Waters, 2016). This can be especially confusing for caregivers. Suddenly, normal parenting techniques such as active listening or natural consequences no longer work at all.

The other day, I watched a dimple faced, angelic-looking 5-year-old with PTSD climb onto his mother’s lap and hit her in the face. She maintained a neutral facial expression and repeated, “Please stop,” in a monotone. She was using an emotion regulation technique that had worked with her older children. This little boy, though, reacted by grabbing a plastic dinosaur off the play therapy shelves and pummeling her even harder. I leaned forward, called his name, and waited until he made eye contact. I raised my eyebrows and said, “You seem so angry!” in a slightly elevated voice that matched his mood. He stopped, sat down on the sofa, and took a breath. What he needed was a genuine reaction. He needed to feel connected, understood, and engaged.

This is because once children have learned, through experience, that the world can become dark, they may operate like mini CIA agents, scrutinizing our faces and voices for clues.

Here's what they are looking for:

1. Overreactions.

I have been blessed with many loving parents as clients. Those parents are shaken to the core when their children experience trauma. As a natural result of that, they may communicate feelings of endangerment and fear to their children. This can happen in the most subtle ways. The parent may hold their child’s hand more tightly than before when in public. Their eyes may furrow when the doorbell rings. They may ask their child questions like, “did anyone bother you today?” All of these are signs that they love their child and want to protect him, however, these cues can trigger a fear response in children.

When a child experiences trauma, that child's experience affects the entire family. The parent's view on the world is shifted and an enhanced sense of mindfulness is needed to continuously assess how to respond to their child. According to Polyvagal theory, when children observe their parents’ facial expressions turn into an angry frown or squinty, narrowed eyes, their autonomic nervous systems begin to react in a fight, flight, or freeze response (Porges, 2018). At the same time, the learning center of their brains get deactivated, so they do not process the words that are being said as much as they absorb tone and expression. A parent's ability to constantly check in with themselves is a crucial part of the healing process for the child who has experienced trauma.

The Fix: We may not be able to control our unconscious reactions to threat. But we can control what we communicate. When our child gets off the school bus, for example, we can ask ourselves this: What would I say if I believed that the world could have been a warm and welcoming place to my child today? We can take a deep breath, try unclenching the knot in our stomachs, relaxing the creases around our eyes, checking in with ourselves and asking a variation of “Tell me how your day was! Any good lunch today?”

2. Under-Reactions.

We may think that in order to help our children stay calm, we must project a sense of calm. This perspective would not be entirely incorrect, as humans do have mirror neurons, and with that, the tendency to take affective cues from others. However, there is one caveat. Acting like you feel calm when somewhere inside, even if it is deep down, you are feeling rattled or panicked or angry or scared, that can backfire. Remember how traumatized children are like little CIA operatives with enhanced mood detecting abilities? When they sense inconsistencies between our feelings and our words, they do not react well (Silberg, 2013).

After a child has been hurt, they may perceive us through a more sensitive lens. The laugh lines around our eyes, in particular, become powerful tools for communicating our own internal states. This is because the orbital muscles are regulated by facial nerves, and children tune into our expressions in order to co-regulate their emotions with ours. Some traumatized children may become hyper-alert to sounds, and that means that the muscles in their inner ears are more sensitive to lower frequencies in the environment, which they may perceive as sounds of threat. They may be less reactive to our voices and may actually stop hearing us when they feel unsafe (Porges, 2018). When we understand that their apparent misbehavior is a result of neurobiological trauma, we can help rewire those traumatic responses.

The Fix: Don’t be perfect, be real. It is ok for children to see us have real emotions. They can trust us if we are honest about how we feel. Of course, we shouldn’t overwhelm them with too much adult information about our own feelings, and we should never express our feelings with violence. But we should be genuine so they can feel safe connecting with us.

Although society may encourage us to smooth out our laugh lines with Botox and plastic surgery, we can think of those same wrinkles as magical. There are so many diverse ways in which children may respond to us after they have been hurt. They may act out with oppositional behavior. They may space out and ignore our directions. They may become irritable or anxious. Each interaction holds an opportunity.

When we kneel down to make eye contact and we allow the fine lines on our face to crinkle as we smile, we can help our children’s bodies begin to relax. Since trauma gets often stored in the nonverbal parts of the brain, it can, in part, be healed through powerful nuances in our nonverbal communication. It is in the moments between the words, in the glances and the hugs and the warmth in our eyes that we can help children rebuild a sense of safety.

References

Porges, S. W., & Dana, D. (2018). Clinical applications of the polyvagal theory: the emergence of polyvagal-informed therapies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Silberg, J. L. (2013). The child survivor healing developmental trauma and dissociation. New York: Routledge.

Waters, F. S. (2016). Healing the fractured child: diagnosis and treatment of youth with dissociation. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

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