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Complex Trauma In Children - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Watch Dr. Sylvia Gearing discuss Judge Adams and complex trauma in children on CBS 11 - click here.

With the recent shocking video of Texas Judge William Adams beating his daughter, many people are wondering what kind of horrors may be lurking in their own neighborhoods. Many people do not fully understand trauma and how it can affect children and adolescents who are traumatized in their own homes.

How does physical and emotional abuse affect a child?

It is completely disastrous. The harm to a developing child is much more serious than to an adult. Adolescence is one of the worst times to expose a child’s brain to violence of any kind. Their brains are still developing and the brain can be fundamentally de-regulated during the most important years of development. The emotional parts of the brain are over-stimulated and they do not develop in unison leaving the child more vulnerable to a host of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, addictions and post-traumatic stress disorders. Such conditions have massive effect on the child's personality, how the treat others, and the choices that are made in jobs, spouses, and education. This is kind of child abuse can have lifelong effects.

Does parental physical abuse affect the child more than other kinds of abuse?

Without a doubt, physical abuse from a parent is much more devastating to the child. We know that trauma is worse when someone we know—a friend, neighbor or even acquaintance--inflicts it. Suddenly, someone you know trust is now a threat, and mistrust of others is a natural consequence.

In cases in which the parent inflicts the abuse, the betrayal is even more traumatic. We underestimate the effect that a parent’s cruel and abusive behavior can have on a child. The one person in the world you were supposed to trust—your parent—has now turned on you.

Worse then that, the behavior is legitimized by the rest of the family. There is nowhere for a young child to turn. The abuse is “crazy making” since the parent who has abused their authority is unapologetic, and the other family members blame you for the family turmoil. Children in this situation commonly develop complex traumatic disorder as a result of the chronic cruelty.

What is Complex Post-Traumatic Syndrome?

We now know that the most powerful determinant of psychological harm is the severity of the traumatic event itself. This new disorder goes beyond the traditional descriptions of post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychologists now understand that psychological stressors reside on a complexity continuum. At one end are single-incident traumatic events such as a car accident, a mugging, etc. At the opposite end are psychological responses to multiple, extended, and often highly invasive and traumatic events. Having a family member physically strike you on multiple occasions belongs in this range.

Why don't the other family members ever come forward?

Trauma occurs when you feel completely powerless. You must remember that when a person is overwhelmed by terror and helplessness, their ability to self activate is completely obliterated. When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human self-defense system becomes overwhelmed and disorganized. We are immobilized and literally the problem solving parts of the brain shut down.

Trauma occurs when nothing you do can alleviate the outcome. Traumatic events interrupt our belief that we can control the outcome of our lives. Psychologists now believe that trauma may even deeply affect the central nervous system. Trauma victims feel that their adrenaline is constantly flowing and they are in a state of continuous alert. Victims are convinced, at a visceral level, that danger might return at any moment. They narrow their world and become terrified of new situations.

Can Post Traumatic Stress or Complex Trauma occur in events that are not life threatening?

Both can absolutely occur in events that are not life threatening but threaten us in other ways. Psychologists now believe that trauma can be incurred in a number of other non-life threatening situations, such as infidelity, in which the betrayed partner is made to feel intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and the threat of their safety disappearing.

If you think you or someone you know may be traumatized, here are some of the top symptoms to watch out for:

Hyper-arousal: The person has a persistent expectation of danger and is overly reactive to stress.

Intrusive Thinking: The victim experiences repeated thoughts and memories from the trauma. Intrusive thoughts reflect the indelible imprint of the traumatic moment.

Emotional Constriction: People who have been victimized are often so overwrought with emotion that they try to avoid and restrict their emotional responses to everything. The constriction reflects the numbing response of surrender.

We know more about trauma than we ever did. The success rates for professional treatment are excellent and the sooner you address these issues, the better.


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