Whenever we are in the time of year where the kiddos around us begin to return to school, the inevitable uptick in people reaching out to me online or in-person usually starts. While the questions in this COVID-19 school year are slightly different, the theme is the same: “how do I help my kiddo from a hard place to make the transition into the new school year?”
I think back to the first school year when our kids had come home and how we were not prepared for the additional struggle that would be facing our two. I am not referring to the teachers that had a problem with my trans-racial family or that were putting kids “on the fence” the first day. I am thinking about the time my youngest kid from a hard place was starting 1st grade. She had only been with us for 2 months and while I waited in line with her to enter her 1st grade classroom for the first time, she sat down on my feet, looked up with tears streaming down her face, and said, “I want to be witchu” (That’s *with you* for those that don’t speak distressed 6-year-old).
This was not normal starting school nerves as she had been to school before and enjoyed it. She loved kindergarten and loved playing with other kids. But on this day, two months after being home, she clung to me with all of her might and let me know that she was terrified. So when I went to carry her into her classroom and her new teacher (who we hadn’t yet met) stopped me at the door to tell me that no parents were allowed, I took a deep breath and began my first trauma-informed classroom training, without even knowing that was what I was doing. I simply said, “she needs me with her until she doesn’t, because this is overwhelming for her. So I can walk her in or she can go home with me.” I was blocking the rest of the students behind us and I am pretty sure I had a calm and resolute expression on my face, so the teacher waved me in with a nod and I took my daughter to the desk with her name on it, helped her hang up her backpack, knelt down next to her and let her know that she was precious and that I believed in her. I stepped to the side of the classroom and stood against the wall, trying to make myself inconspicuous, but available. As the students started to settle in, my daughter looked up and gave me a quick nod to let me know that I could step away.
I am not without compassion for the teacher’s desire to help children to enter the classroom as their own people and the complication of additional adults in the room. But what I started to understand that day is that so many of the environments in the world are designed to support those who have had a less traumatic experience and that those who need something different are penalized when communicating their needs.
Benevolent World and Chaotic World
Dr. Martin Teicher, a celebrated neuroscientist from Harvard, has written several papers and articles explaining the impact of trauma on developing brains, as well as the relevancy of that impact on our social structures. His work has shed light on the limits of capacity that is available for those brains that have adapted in what he calls a malevolent, or chaotic, world.
What is important for us to understand here is that the brain adapts based on experiences. Regardless of whether you have great experiences or difficult experiences in childhood, your brain will adapt and form neural pathways based on those particular repeated experiences. This means that the type of environment in which you received the largest amount of experiences will have the greatest level of significant impact on the development and adaptation of your brain. When we have difficulty in childhood, our brain adapts to help us to survive the difficult conditions, but not without a wounding to our internal systems.
Teicher proposes that we can see two pathways of development; a benevolent world or a chaotic world. People who have had the benevolent experience, they’ve experienced safety. Because they’ve experienced safety during childhood, their brain adapts to believe that people are safe, and processes make sense. They understand how things work. And because of that, they have the capacity for imagination and dreaming about possibilities. Since they understand how people work, how things work, they can dream and imagine. For this population, when they go on into adult life, they do well in most circumstances. They are generally known to be emotionally regulated. Because of their capacity for understanding people and systems, they are very often the people who are leaders, who are policy setters, who set expectations for behavior; they are the “in-charge” people. Conversely, they also generally respond very poorly when things go wrong, and this is because their brains have not adapted to develop internal strategies for addressing challenges. They haven’t had the experiences that have taught them, “oh, this is what you do in crisis or high levels of stress.” It is not the fault of the benevolent experience person that they do not have capacity for high-pressure problem-solving or decision-making. Instead of blaming them for that lack of capacity and being judgmental, it is much more helpful to remember, “this is just how their brains have adapted.”
Likewise, when we encounter people who have had the chaotic experience and they’ve experienced danger, which means the brain has been in flight, fight or freeze during developmental periods, there is an equally significant adaptation occurring. In their experience, they have learned people are not safe and processes do not make sense, because the terrible things that happen in a malevolent world are not truly reconcilable; they do not truly make sense. When a person is in the survival space of fight, flight, or freeze, there is also a lack of capacity for dreaming or looking forward, because the need to survive is co-opting the part of the brain that would be looking for future possibilities. The future is not something that makes sense to spend any energy thinking about, because safety is the biological imperative. As the chaotic world brains adapt, they develop so that those people generally do really well in some of the worst circumstances, but maybe blow up over little things.
Society reaps what it sows in nurturing its children. Whether abuse of a child is physical, psychological, or sexual, it sets off a ripple of hormonal changes that wire the child’s brain to cope with a malevolent world. It predisposes the child to have a biological basis for fear, though he may act and pretend otherwise (Teicher, 2002).
It is not the fault of the chaotic experience person that they do not have capacity for regulating emotion, catching social cues, controlling impulses, or storing information reliably in the memory centers of their brains. Instead of blaming them for that lack of capacity and being judgmental, it is much more helpful to remember, “this is just how their brains have adapted.”
Early abuse molds the brain to be more irritable, impulsive, suspicious, and prone to be swamped by fight-or-flight reactions that the rational mind may be unable to control. The brain is programmed to a state of defensive adaptation, enhancing survival in a world of constant danger, but at a terrible price (Teicher, 2002).
How this tends to be experienced by others is that the biological imperative of what this person needs in order to experience felt safety and how they express themselves to try to get safety is going to butt up right up against the person who’s had the benevolent experience, because they’ve set the social expectations, and the policy, and understanding of safety, based on the idea of their experiences that bad stuff doesn’t happen, and these people are just overreacting.
So this is the collide that is happening in our environments. The social expectations, the behavioral standards, and the participation policies are largely focused on “rejecting and ejecting” people who have experienced trauma. We find this is generally because people who have the benevolent experience are setting policy that is limited to their own generally safe existence and brain adaptations – the rules are meant to help them continue to experience the same level of benevolent existence.
Here is the big issue: the majority of people have experienced at least one type of trauma, and a lot of them have not had people who are mentoring their brains for co-regulation. So we’re expecting them to be able to respond in a way that they simply cannot; the systems (educational, justice, recreational, and social, to name a few) that we all exist within are demanding a level of behavior and expression that is beyond the capacity of the majority of people.
Where we have found ourselves is in a situation where those who have been hurt, rejected, and harmed are repeatedly re-traumatized as they are told that they are not good enough, smart enough, or acceptable enough, because their expressions of need are rejected as a character flaw or a choice. They are told by the suspensions, detentions, expulsions, and disciplinary actions that they are deemed unworthy of belonging, all because of an adaptation that is continually reinforced by the systems that should be part of healing. Instead of focusing on detention, incarceration, and punitive measure, we could be addressing the issue further upstream, by taking Adverse Childhood Experiences seriously. Teicher asks this question by saying, “[i]f we know that the roots of violence are fertilized by childhood abuse, can we make a long-term commitment to reduce violence by focusing on our children rather than our criminals?” (Teicher, 2002).
What strikes me as the most devastating thing about all of this is that the very behaviors that are resulting in this reject and eject response are actually significant and important opportunities to help that person’s brain and body to get their need met, and if that can happen repeatedly in a safe and welcoming environment, the neuroplasticity of the brain will help to build new neural pathways and increase capacities.
This is because ALL BEHAVIOR IS COMMUNICATION.
ALL BEHAVIOR IS COMMUNICATION. All of it.
When we punish trauma symptoms and reject the person, we are denying the humanity, dignity, and voice of the person who is reaching out for help in the best strategy available to their brain and body.
We can do better.
- learn about trauma and its impact on the brain
- become well-versed in understanding attachment
- address intergenerational, community, and historical trauma
- learn about development and what gets in the way
- move forward with compassion and stop punishing trauma symptoms
This will take time, humility, and effort.
Please join me in continuing to expand capacity for Bringing Your Heart.
For those who have developed eyes to see the need, ears to hear the need, and hearts to meet the need
To be clear – there are people who have had the benevolent experience who are able to recognize trauma. Because they have had experiences that were not traumatic, however, they have allowed themselves to be open and aware that their experience is not the only experience. So for those of you that can see that you had more of the benevolent experience, thank you for reading to the end of this being open to the idea that there is more that is out there than just your experience. Kudos to you. Because that is the first step in us being able to do this together. We need your skills and you need our reality.
Read the 2002 Teicher article I cited HERE.