Toddlers Found Amid Bloodbath – When Children Experience Trauma
The headline read: Toddlers found Amid Bloodbath. Four-year-old Amy and two-year-old Abbey (not their real names), had witnessed the murder/suicide of their parents. The girls were rescued a day later playing around their dead parents. The police were able to place the children with extended family thought they could cope. They were wrong.
Amy, once toilet-trained, started soiled her pants on a regular basis. Abbey started sucking her thumb and refused to leave her sister’s side. For reasons no one could understand, the two would suddenly become enraged and on one occasion Amy lunged at her uncle (the current guardian) with a kitchen knife lacerating his leg. Both girls asked frequently, when their parents were coming back. Amy on occasion, would become nauseated and vomit when she would walk in and see her aunt preparing raw meat for dinner. Neither girl slept well and night terrors accompanied with screams that woke the entire house occurred weekly. When they played, the themes were often violent with toys being destroyed and their behaviors escalating into physical fights between them. Abbey refused to be held, would cry a lot and bite herself. Amy refused to play with other children and her daycare provider said she sometimes resembled a trapped animal that lashed out when you tried to come near her.
Their home placement quickly became jeopardized as the already distraught family was not prepared for, nor did they understand, what was occurring. The result, the children ended up in foster care, with a family that had wonderful intentions but was not properly trained on what to expect from traumatized children, how to help them and how to cope.
From the family’s perspective the children should have been relieved and happy to be in a loving, caring environment. They became very confused and angered with the girl’s behavior did not match what they expected. They returned the children to the county for another placement. This happened several times before the girls ended up with a specialized foster care family who already had four special needs children.
The girls were seen by multiple counselors/therapists and doctors. Many of which did not have specialized training in helping children who have been traumatized. By the time the girls were ready to go to middle school, they were separated, living in different homes (the fifth for Amy and the eighth for Abbey), were promiscuous, hard to handle, occasionally heavily drugged by well-meaning doctors and their school performance was very poor with frequent suspensions.
This is a horrendous story. It is horrendous because the children experienced such a horror. Worse because no one knew information to help understand the natural reactions the children were having as a result of the events they experienced. By the time I got the case, years of compounded stress and trauma had to be unraveled.
There is an old myth that children are very resilient that they bounce back from adversity better than adults. Notice I said myth. Children are just as traumatized and reactive as adults to traumatic events. Children, however, often present different then their adult counterparts.
To the unaware adult, the child is acting out, being obstinate, not reacting to the events. The child typically is not able to sit down and tell you or debrief the events the way an adult can. Depending on their age, children are not able to verbally process the events and their meaning due to limited cognitive development. For example, children do not have a concrete understanding of death as being final until around age ten.
The case with Amy and Abbey is extreme; however, traumas do occur frequently to children. Divorce, child and domestic abuse, school bullying, parents who are involved in severe drug and alcohol abuse, deaths or serious illness in the family, loss of income of a parent, moving to a new school and home. All these and many more are examples of events that are very stressful and at times traumatic enough to cause severe reactions in a child.
It is important to anyone with a child who has or is currently stressful and/or traumatic or who work with children to understand the nature of trauma on a child to learn ways children express and process these events.
The brain acts like a movie camera during a traumatic event. It will record the images, sounds, smells and touch feelings associated with it. This occurs so the brain can figure out how to react for protection. Integrate this into the person to make sense of the event. How to self protect if it happens again or try to prevent it from happening again. The behaviors you see in a child are the outward manifestations of these attempts.
Here are some of the behaviors you may find in children coping with extreme stress and or trauma in their life.
- Children will typically digress in their developmental levels (forget learned behaviors like toilet training, talk babyish, need stuffed animals to sleep, night lights, want more cuddle time, forget how to do skills learned in school)
- Nightmares, night terrors, sleep walking, sleep talking, refusing to go to bed or sleep.
- Refusing to eat, over eating, nauseated at certain foods, craving certain foods such as feel good foods, wanting a pacifier or bottle fed.
- Refusing to go to the bathroom, soiling their clothing, smearing feces, obsessive masturbating.
- Aggressive or violent behaviors, crying spells and tantrums.
- A drop in school performance, decrease in grades, acting out in school, not wanting to go to school.
- Moodiness, bursts of anger, crying spells, moppyness, laughing inappropriately, pulling out hair, twirling hair, pulling out eye lashes or eye brows, hurting themselves on purpose, clumsiness or accident prone.
- Flashbacks (experiencing the trauma event as if it is currently happening), responding to things that remind them of events (the blood of raw meat for someone who witnessed a bloody event).
- Promiscuousness, early involvement with smoking, drugs and alcohol, deviant behaviors, abuse of others, abuse of self, disrespect for adults or specific adults.
If extreme stresses or a traumatic event happens to your family, your child or a child in your care, note these reactions. Do not assume the child will manage without help. It is better to act as if need is eminent then to ignore the potential as behaviors of a child’s distress may not show up right away. It may take days or weeks to show. There are times where the child appears to do well and after they reach a more developed cognitive ability (the older they get) their mind will once again address what they experience and this is when you may see behaviors develop. The sooner the child is able to get help, the better things will be for them.
Use the services of school counselors, professional counselors/therapists (make sure they are trained in childhood trauma if trauma is the issue), a doctor’s care maybe necessary as well. Learn all you can about how severe stress and trauma affects children and incorporate this for the children in your care. If you are also a part of the extreme stress or trauma, remember that you are also struggling on various levels. Take care of yourself.
Extreme stress and trauma can occur in anyone’s life. Be prepared if you have or work with children. Know the signs and how to get help. The emotional health and well being of a child may depend on it.