We live in a fallen world where terrible things happen. Many people can experience psychological trauma from such events. However, trials and tribulations are guaranteed on this side of heaven for all of us. Even innocent children and good people will experience them. Think about Jesus. He was perfect and yet He endured some highly traumatic experiences.
Trauma is a distressing, painful, or shocking experience that causes harmful psychological, physiological, or spiritual effects. We commonly think of trauma as extreme situations such as wartime violence, sexual violations, or other life-threatening situations like natural disasters or motor vehicle accidents.
The mind that experiences a trauma determines whether it will be traumatic or not. A young, immature mind is more likely to be traumatized than an older person. This is due to limited understanding and experience, and inadequate skills for processing a difficult event.
Little Traumas May Not Be So Little
The DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, uses the term “serious injury” to describe an event that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of course, “serious injury” is a pretty vague term. Often as adults, when we look back at painful events from our past — losses, hurts, rejections, violations, or abuse — we look at them through adult lenses, normalizing them while intellectually minimizing the traumatic experience.
This makeshift strategy tricks us into thinking the event had little impact. We then ignore it and act like it was really not a big deal. Examples of traumatic experiences might include:
- the divorce of your parents
- the sudden death of your grandpa who lived with you
- getting bullied in school for stuttering
- being cut from the cheerleading squad, basketball team, or choir when all your close friends made it.
We may think, “Lots of kids I know went through that.” Maybe we believe, “It was predictable.” Or, “I know I wasn’t good enough to make the team.” So we label those occurrences as a non-event. But what if we could go back in time and remember how we really felt and thought during those events? Or what if we could be in our children’s shoes, watching them experience those same situations? We would see things quite differently.
Looking Back On Your Past
Think back to events you may have gone through such as:
- a friend not inviting you to their birthday party
- getting picked last in dodgeball
- a best friend moving away, or you moving
- your favorite pet dying
- rejection by a crush, or any other rejection, especially when others knew about it.
If these types of situations are not properly processed with a godly perspective and with nurturing assistance, psychological trauma usually occurs. While these traumatic experiences might not be as intense as with more severe trauma such as abuse or sexual assault, these micro-traumas can have serious spiritual, psychological, and physiological consequences. These make it more difficult to process the next hurt properly, increasing the probability that the hurt crosses the threshold from healthy learning experience into a damaging traumatic experience.
When Emotional Alarm Bells Ring
When our brain is exposed to an intense situation of potential danger, God uses our emotions as a warning system. Anxiety, fear, sadness, and anger all let us know something isn’t right, that danger exists, or that we’re not seeing things accurately. Then our mind scans our memory banks to search for information that can help us assess the current situation. Once we have that data, our thinking centers (the first responders) determine how to react and with what intensity.
How Psychological Trauma Affects the Brain
Psychological trauma is damaging to all three spheres (spiritual, psychological, and physiological) in many ways. Recent research clearly shows three specific areas of our brain’s emotional machinery (called the limbic system) that are prime targets. Trauma impacts these areas plus the decision-making circuits known as the prefrontal cortex.
The emotional center — a structure in our limbic system called the amygdala — becomes overactive when injured. So our emotions, which God uses as a warning system, become more sensitive. Our brain is on the lookout because we don’t want to get hurt again. It searches for situations that are similar to past hurts so we can avoid them. Our emotions are on high alert.
Our memory center — another structure in the limbic system called the hippocampus — shrinks and becomes less active when we are emotionally injured. When a distressing situation occurs, we want to know whether a present danger exists or whether the present situation only slightly resembles a past danger. Our injured hippocampus sometimes can’t distinguish past memories with their attached emotions from present perceptions. So if a boy named Billy made fun of my stutter in the past, and I am meeting a different Billy now, my brain might not distinguish appropriate emotional responses between past Billy and present Billy.
The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex
Our emotional thermostat — known impressively as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VM-PFC) — is underactive when injured. The VM-PFC connects into our limbic system (emotional center) and regulates the intensity of the emotional responses triggered by the amygdala, especially negative emotions such as fear, as well as the reaction we have to the triggering event. The emotional warning signs we experience can be exaggerated because this emotional regulator is inhibited. This is one of the reasons why anxious people or those with PTSD startle easily. Also, the exaggerated reaction doesn’t allow the prefrontal cortex “first responder” to perform a reasonable assessment of the present situation and enact a levelheaded response. Instead, our trauma-damaged minds produce impulsive, knee-jerk, survival-oriented, emotionally-driven, dysfunctional decisions.
How Satan Takes Advantage of Our Trauma
Spiritually and psychologically, Satan uses traumatic experiences as opportunities to conspire with our flesh and brainwash us with propaganda and lies. Remember, children believe in Santa, Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. They also believe their dad is the strongest man alive and that mom is the prettiest woman ever and can walk on water (in other words, kids are gullible and don’t have a very good grasp of reality). Satan uses this gullibility and immaturity to plant some very effective lies. Some of his lies that lead to unhealthy psychological decision making are:
- Me-centered — No one likes me. My parents don’t care about me or they wouldn’t have gotten a divorce. My bad behavior was the reason my parents divorced. I am broken and will never be fixed. I am ugly/fat/dorky/unlovable. There is nothing special, uniquely made, or lovable about me. My life has no purpose, calling, gifting, or meaning.
- Others-centered — If I get close to someone, I will be hurt. People are mean. People are selfish. Other people don’t care about me. Only foolish people trust others. It’s every man for himself. Winning is the only thing. And especially for tween or teen girls: Sex is all boys want and all I am valuable for.
- God-centered — If God really cared, bad things wouldn’t happen. God doesn’t love or care about me. He is punishing me because I’m bad. God has no use for me and has moved on to help others. This abuse has damaged me and I have no place in God’s family.
Granted, the world is a harsh place. Before I scare you into keeping your kids locked in the house until they’re 21, let me put some of this in context and leave you with a few tips.
Wholeness in Spite of Psychological Trauma
Viewing difficult situations with Godly lenses and responding in healthy ways strengthens our brain chemistry. We grow psychologically and we become more spiritually mature. The Bible calls this “renewing the mind,” and it leads to transformed, abundant living. When adversity presents itself, God is sovereign. On this side of eternity we may never know why certain traumatic experiences happen. We do know, however, that He wants to use hardship to make us stronger. Just as any good parent, coach, or teacher sees the incredible potential and promise of a child and uses adversity to grow those in their care, God knows your child’s potential and future and wants them to achieve what they are capable of.
Understanding God, His plan, and Biblical principles for living, especially during adversity as Paul writes so much about, allows us to not just survive despite adversity but to have resiliency that allows us to thrive because of adversity.
6 Things to Consider if Your Child Has Experienced Psychological Trauma
Here are some additional things to consider if your child has experienced emotional or psychological trauma:
1. Negative Feelings
Uncomfortable feelings are okay, so allow your kids (and yourself) to feel them and talk about them. Jesus experienced many “negative” feelings — anger, sadness, worry, concern, grief, abandonment, and rejection — yet He never sinned. Really, these emotions are neither sins nor are they negative, but are a valuable warning system. But they can be very uncomfortable. They are like the check engine light on your car’s dashboard or a smoke detector. Nobody likes it when a warning light starts flashing or when a smoke detector screeches, but they can save you lots of money and maybe even save your life.
Keep lines of communication open. So many things happen in your kids’ lives every day. If you aren’t spending lots of time together with positive communication and feedback, they won’t tell you anything about what’s going on. They will interpret events on their own, allowing big cracks for Satan to get in and plant lots of lies. On the flip side, when you communicate well you can share your perspective on situations (in age-appropriate ways). You can also be a role model for how to share thoughts and feelings. Kids rarely see parents do this, yet we expect them to know how to do it as if by magic.
3. Process Traumatic Events Promptly
Process adverse events ASAP. First responders, military, and hospital staff often do this (or should do this). If adult professionals need it, your child does too. Helping your child understand exactly what happened — the truth of the situation — minimizes the psychological, spiritual, and brain damage we discussed above. In fact, it helps your child grow confidence in himself, you, and God. And again, it doesn’t allow Satan the fertile ground to plant the lies he so desperately wants to.
4. Discuss Events
Be the translator of life for your children. When something bad happens, ask them how they saw it, what they thought and felt, and what thoughts about themselves, others, or God came out of that situation. You can talk about what actions they took, what options they had, and why they chose one option and rejected the others. You can learn what is going on in their mind and correct any misinterpretation they took from the event. This also gives you a great window to look at their inner workings and maturity level.
5. Illogical Actions
If your child does something illogical, remember that it seems logical to them based on the information (or misinformation) they have stored in their memory banks (the hippocampus). You need to be a detective. Ask them questions to figure out what misinformation (lies, propaganda) bubbled up from inside to make the illogical option (to God and you) seem very logical to them. Use the questions from tip number 4 above.
6. Make a Comeback
Finally, don’t allow your kids to set a premature finish line. Your child’s life may not be going the way they want it to. They may have even gone through something horrible and tragic and experienced psychological trauma from it. Your child may be tempted to think that life, like some lopsided game, has been decided because of these traumatic events. They may believe that the terrible circumstances they encountered define their life. Let them know God is the Author of great comebacks. He has an awesome one specially designed for them.
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© 2020 by Dr. Karl Benzio. All rights reserved.