How traumatised children express their feelings

How then might these children express their feelings?

They may develop a belief that they were responsible for their early traumatic experiences. This may feel like a ‘safer’ belief system to embrace than acknowledging the reality of having been born to parents who were not able to meet their needs.

Recognising that responsibility lies with parents implies that children have no power to reduce the nature or extent of their traumatic experiences; feeling that they could make a difference by becoming less dependent might offer children a sense of efficacy and control and a feeling that they, and they alone, can make the difference that will allow them to feel safer.

This belief, while offering a degree of safety within a traumatic family is likely to make it difficult for children to settle in new families. Instead of accepting the loving authority of parents, they might respond with a fight response, becoming oppositional and acting out their feelings in controlling behaviours.  They might find it difficult to depend on adults for comfort or reassurance. As babies and toddlers they may have felt that their abuse occurred because they were dependent on parents and believe (perhaps unconsciously) that it was this dependence that led to the abuse.

They may continue with the ‘switched off’, dissociative response. Having internalised the belief that they were responsible for their traumatic experiences, they may struggle to express feelings and work hard to be the ‘good kid’ whose role in life is to ensure that nobody sees the ‘bad kid’ they believe themselves to be underneath the façade. They may feel that expressing feelings (crying) led to them being traumatised and therefore try to remain ‘under the radar’ in an attempt to reduce further traumas.  They might develop a flight response, distancing themselves from carers in the fear that developing attachments will lead to further abuse, neglect and/or abandonment.

Often children are a confusing mix of all of these responses. Having lived in an unpredictable environment they have no stable belief system to make sense of their experiences and display this in a complex mixture of feelings and behavioural responses. Since their experiences were developed within relationships with parents and carers who modelled unhealthy ways of managing stress, it is understandable that children, who have developed trauma related and unhealthy belief systems, often at an unconscious level, generalise, from these experiences, a belief system that interprets all relationships as potentially traumatising, neglectful and/or abusive. It is understandable that, given this generalised belief system, traumatised children display behaviours that reflect their lived experiences and that they struggle with dependence on parents when they move to new families.

Sometimes children deal with difficult feelings in an aggressive and violent way. This may be seen as the extreme end of the fight response to trauma. However anger may well also be a dissociative response where minor reminders of past traumas can trigger the feelings that accompanied these traumas; i.e. overwhelming fear amounting to terror. Indeed angry, aggressive children are likely to experience a mixture of the feeling states that reflect the fight for survival and the dissociative responses that were endemic to their early traumatic experiences.

Before considering the impact on parents we need to recognise that children who display aggression are expressing deep seated feelings which make little sense to them and over which they have little control. While it may be more understandable that dissociative children are responding from a basis of fear to early abuse and/or neglect we need to recognise that aggressive behaviour is equally a fear based response to early life experiences. Recognising this allows us to have empathy for aggressive children and is a precursor to helping them find ways to repair from early trauma and to developing less harmful ways of interacting with others.

Having highlighted that aggression makes sense in terms of traumatised children’s lived experiences, aggressive behaviour is clearly not acceptable or safe for either the children themselves or their families, and it will certainly bring approbation if not criminal involvement if this behaviour occurs outside the family and continues into adult life. Without help the ‘cute’ toddler who, in a tantrum, hits his carer could become the bully that nobody wants to play with in school or the adult who is arrested for assault. Helping aggressive children recognise the underlying reasons for their difficulties, acknowledging that they have learned inappropriate ways of acting out their fear based feelings and supporting them to find different, healthier ways of interacting can encourage and support them to become less fearful and therefore more able to alter unacceptable behaviours.

Aggressive children often present as being powerful and in control; they have a tendency to blame others for their anger. It is important to recognise that this outward presentation often hides a child who is fearful and who feels an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and lack of self-esteem. In our experience, very few aggressive children feel ‘good’ about themselves or their aggression, although they work hard to hide this from themselves and others. Helping children recognise that the aegis of their behaviour lies in their early traumatic experiences and helping them recognise the bio-neurological impact of these experiences can help children make sense of the feelings that underlie their behaviour and increase understanding of why they struggle to manage positive interactions (Morgan 2013). Rather than becoming an ‘excuse’ for continued aggression, it is our experience that understanding helps children feel a ‘real’ sense of efficacy and an increased ability to develop healthier ways of interacting with themselves and others.