Responding to Danger
Before we discuss what is meant by a “traumatic experience” or “traumatic stress,” let’s think about how we recognize and deal with danger. Our minds, our brains, and our bodies are set up to make sure we make danger a priority. Things that are dangerous change over the course of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. For very young children, swimming pools, electric outlets, poisons, and sharp objects are dangerous. For school-age children, walking to school, riding a bike in the street, or climbing to high places present new dangers. In adolescents, access to automobiles, guns, drugs, and time on their own, especially at night, are new dimensions to danger. Dangers change depending on where children live and on their families’ circumstances. Also, dangers change over the history of societies and cultures.
There are three things that happen when we are in a dangerous situation. First, we try to figure out what the
danger is and how serious it is. Second, we have strong emotional and physical reactions. These reactions help us to take action, yet they can be very distressing to feel and difficult to handle. Third, we try to come up with what to do that can help us with the danger. We try to prevent it from happening, try to protect ourselves or other people against harm, or try to do something to keep it from getting worse. How we feel about a danger depends on both how serious we think it is and what we think can be done about it.
When Danger Turns Into Trauma
We live with dangers every day. As children and adolescents grow up, they continually learn about different types of dangers. We are always looking for ways to make our lives safer. However, terrible things sometimes happen within and outside the family. They can happen suddenly without warning. Children may experience different traumas over the course of childhood and adolescence. Some traumas, such as child abuse or witnessing domestic violence, may happen repeatedly over a long period of time.
Dangers can become “traumatic” when they threaten serious injury or death. Traumatic experiences also include physical or sexual violation of the body. The witnessing of violence, serious injury, or grotesque death can be equally traumatic. In traumatic situations, we experience immediate threat to ourselves or to others, often followed by serious injury or harm. We feel terror, helplessness, or horror because of the extreme seriousness of what is happening and the failure of any way to protect against or reverse the harmful outcome. These powerful, distressing emotions go along with strong, even frightening physical reactions, such as rapid heartbeat, trembling, stomach dropping, and a sense of being in a dream.
There are large-scale dangers like disasters, war, and terrorism that threaten large numbers of children and families all at the same time. There are dangers that are particular to a community or neighborhood, like crime, school violence, or traffic accidents. And there are dangers that come from within the family through domestic violence and child abuse. Traumatic experiences fall into a number of categories;
What a Traumatic Situation is Like for a Yound Child
Think of what it is like for young children to be in traumatic situations. They can feel totally helpless and passive. They can cry for help or desperately wish for someone to intervene. They can feel deeply threatened by separation from parents or caretakers.