Every Mother's Advocate

Understanding Trauma

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Licensed Clinical Social Worker Lindy Green Johnson vividly remembers the light bulb moment that changed how she understood children in trauma. She had been working regularly with a 9-year-old boy who had experienced a disrupted adoption. Physically, he looked older than his age. But Lindy began to notice small signs that showed a different picture. After two years of building the relationship, the puzzle started to fit together.

“When I learned this concept of the chronological age versus the developmental and emotional age, it clicked for me,” Lindy says. “I realized he liked playing with toys that were more appropriate to my four- or five-year-old nephews. Like a dinosaur toy and a dinosaur book.”

Lindy figured this out through her lived experience, but it is a general principle for understanding trauma. When trauma disrupts a person’s development, he or she may function closer to half their chronological age in years. 

“Early trauma disrupts so much,” Lindy shares. Its effects cannot be underestimated.

Every mom entering the ĒMA program takes a holistic assessment that includes a trauma score. Nearly all moms in crisis have experienced trauma in some shape or form. Their children may be experiencing it too, especially in families at risk of separation or already in the foster care system.

For ĒMA advocates, or anyone journeying closely with someone who has been impacted by trauma, it is critical to understand its causes, effects, and how to compassionately respond.

What is trauma?

A simple definition of trauma is: the actual or perceived experience of danger or threat. 

Life-threatening events certainly qualify as trauma, but think broader as well. Home environments that are unsafe, unpredictable, or even just chaotic or disruptive can also create traumatic experiences. 

“Equally important as what actually happened is how the person perceived the threat or their level of safety,” Lindy shares. 

When it comes to trauma then, perception is reality. Even if a person may objectively have been safe, the brain may not know that and it responds accordingly. Physically, trauma affects the brain by overworking the amygdala–the part of the brain responsible for keeping us safe. The amygdala is fully developed at birth, which means no one is too young to experience trauma.

Trauma also affects each person differently. “Multiple children being raised in the same environment might have different impacts,” Lindy notes. So even within the same home, each sibling may have a slightly different memory, experience, and impact of trauma.

Trauma can be created by unsafe situations as well as by loss, change, or disruption. Our super sophisticated brains memorize the circumstances and sensory inputs surrounding danger. That is why trauma can be triggered years later. A person might not even be consciously aware of the trigger, but the brain recognizes it and prompts a response–such as running away, freezing, or fighting back.

Common misconceptions

In helping people understand trauma, Lindy also helps them dismantle some common misconceptions on the topic. Here are a few:

“It happened so long ago, you should be fine by now.” 

In reality, trauma can be experienced at any age–even before birth. Pregnancy and early childhood are critical times. “We’re all so absorbent in those first months of life,” Lindy notes. Even if a person doesn’t explicitly remember the situation, the body and brain absorb trauma and carry it forward.

“Major trauma ruins you for life.

While it is important to take trauma seriously, don’t go to the opposite extreme of thinking that a person can never progress from it. Long-term research shows that our brains and bodies can absolutely heal from trauma. “We know without a doubt that there is so much hope for true, genuine, authentic healing,” says Lindy.

7 ways to respond compassionately 

  1. Treat them with value and respect. Regardless of what a person may have lived through and the effects of trauma on their life, they are not “lesser than” or “damaged goods”. Each person is valuable and worthy of our time, love, and respect.
  2. Lead with questions. Try to learn and understand the person’s story and perspective. Heads up: it may be very different from yours. Listening is key. Put aside your own view of the world and try to see through their eyes, even if it doesn’t make sense at first.
  3. Guide towards self-reflection. People living in the shadow of trauma may not be able to see the big picture or how they are operating within it. “If a person has lived in a state of being overwhelmed their whole life, do they even understand they’re overwhelmed?” Lindy asks. Help guide the person towards self-reflection on their thoughts and actions. One practical way to gauge their self-awareness is to say “tell me on a scale of 1-10, how are you feeling?”
  4. Respond with empathy. No matter what they share or how different it may be from your own life experience, respond with empathy. It can be as simple as saying “that sounds hard” or “I’m sorry that was so painful for you”. Let them know you are listening and feeling along with them.
  5. Plan baby steps forward. People affected by trauma need others to journey alongside them in practical ways. Trauma deeply affects how a person thinks, problem solves, and makes decisions. Things that may seem like no big deal for you might be an overwhelming obstacle to them. Patiently plan small steps forward: “what would it take to get here…” or “what is one thing we could try together?” 
  6. Celebrate any progress. Trauma can feel cyclical and it takes work and mindfulness to break the pattern. Any step forward, no matter how small, is something to celebrate. Don’t just look at a person’s behaviors and actions, but their patterns of thinking and self-talk as well. Draw attention to any positive changes and celebrate those.
  7. Keep showing up. Showing up, listening, and being empathetic are not things to do one time. “Expect it to take a lot of repetitions,” Lindy warns. People who are dealing with trauma may also have experienced abandonment and loss in the past. It takes loving consistency to prove you can be trusted and are there for the journey. On the flip side, don’t underestimate the role you can play.

“It takes one safe caring person to change an entire trajectory,” Lindy encourages. 

This article adapted from a video interview of Lindy Green Johnson and Charlee Tchividjian. Watch the video here.

At ĒMA, we take health for moms seriously. Join our program to get support for you and your family or become an advocate to ensure no mother in crisis ever journeys alone.