Chapter 5: Normalized Trauma
from the book "RootEd: How Trauma Impacts Learning and Society" by S.R. Zelenz
“It is not the trauma itself that is the source of illness but the unconscious, repressed, hopeless despair over not being allowed to give expression to what one has suffered and the fact that one is not allowed to show and is unable to experience feelings of rage, anger, humiliation, despair, helplessness, and sadness.” - Alice Miller
When we consider childhood trauma, we often think of physical violence or sexual abuse. Trauma is so normalized in our society, that we don’t often consider the impact of many other factors that cause long-term trauma such as car accidents, divorce, verbal abuse, or spanking. Many may think that verbal abuse and spanking aren’t abuse. They consider it discipline. As discussed in the previous chapter, the brain is designed to respond to threats, so physical violence (such as spanking) or verbal abuse (such as being yelled at) are triggers to rewire the brain to adapt to these experiences as fight or flight triggers. This eventually creates responses such as hypervigilance, anxiety, and inability to concentrate. Pair this with institutional mandatory active shooter drills, earthquake drills, and the like. Add childhood bullies, aggressive teachers, or parents who mock their children. The media, especially social media, supports even more traumatic exposure. It’s everywhere and it is normalized.
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Researchers have found that childhood trauma is far more common than previously understood. William E. Copeland, Ph.D. and colleagues with the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families at the University of Vermont were part of The Great Smoky Mountain Study, a study of 1,420 children in 11 rural North Carolina counties. Through 11,000 interviews spanning from 1993 until 2015, demonstrated that 60 percent of study participants were exposed to at least one trauma by the time they were 16 years of age, and more than 30 percent of participants had experienced more than one traumatic event (Copeland et al., 2018).
Among the 1420 study participants, 630 (49.0%) were female and 983 (89.4%) were white. By age 16 years, 30.9% of children (n = 451) were exposed to 1 traumatic event, 22.5% (n = 289) were exposed to 2 such events, and 14.8% (n = 267) were exposed to 3 or more. Cumulative childhood trauma exposure to age 16 years was associated with higher rates of adult psychiatric disorders (odds ratio for any disorder, 1.2; 95% CI, 1.0-1.4) and poorer functional outcomes, including key outcomes that indicate a significantly disrupted transition to adulthood (eg, failure to hold a job and social isolation). Childhood trauma exposure continued to be associated with higher rates of adult psychiatric and functional outcomes after adjusting for a broad range of childhood risk factors, including psychiatric functioning and family adversities and hardships (adjusted odds ratio for any disorder, 1.3; 95% CI, 1.0-1.5). (Copeland et al., 2018, p. 1)
Prevalence of trauma for other groups will be further discussed in the chapter on epigenetics. However, a study by Tanya N. Alim and colleagues (2006) found:
Trauma exposure is high in African Americans who live in stressful urban environments. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are common outcomes of trauma exposure and are understudied in African Americans....Our study evaluated trauma exposure, PTSD and major depression in African Americans attending primary care offices. METHOD: Six-hundred-seventeen patients (96% African Americans) were surveyed for trauma exposure in the waiting rooms of four primary care offices. Those patients reporting significant traumatic events were invited to a research interview. Of the 403 patients with trauma exposure, 279 participated. RESULTS: Of the 617 participants, 65% reported > or = 1 clearly traumatic event. The most common exposures were transportation accidents (42%), sudden unexpected death of a loved one (39%), physical assault (30%), assault with a weapon (29%) and sexual assault (25%). Lifetime prevalence of PTSD and a major depressive episode (MDE) among those with trauma exposure (n=279) was 51% and 35%, respectively. The percent of lifetime PTSD cases (n=142) with comorbid MDE was 46%. Lifetime PTSD and MDE in the trauma-exposed population were approximately twice as common in females than males, whereas current PTSD rates were similar. CONCLUSIONS: Our rate of PTSD (approximately 33% of those screened) exceeds estimates for the general population. Rates of MDE comorbid with PTSD were comparable to other studies. (p. 1630)
Extensive research into other populations would show similar findings. America is a melting pot population that is frequently segregated by race for statistics. More often than not, the White population is considered more protected than the rest. African Americans also have a history of deeper abuses experienced in previous generations, as do Native Americans. African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans increased effects from trauma are often due to systemic racism, discrimination, and micro-aggressions. The chapter on Epigenetics will discuss these populations in more depth.
The most common trauma would be domestic violence. The prevalence of it in America is quite high. Family and domestic health violence estimates place 10 million people affected annually, and it is also noted to be under-reported (Huecker & Smock, 2019). Abuse ranges from physical, sexual, emotional, economic, and psychological and is done to persons of any age (Huecker & Smock, 2019). This means that exposure to it is nearly impossible to avoid. Children who may not experience it at home, may experience it in a friend’s home, or through classroom experiences. Teachers who are experiencing it at home will also likely find it runs into their workplace experience and they may not treat children or coworkers the way they would if they were not experiencing domestic violence at home. This can vary from demonstrating bully behavior themselves all the way to having no boundaries and allowing adults and children to bully them as it is a conditioned response to threat. Children and adults are all prone to the effects of domestic violence regardless of their proximity to the source of the violence.
Domestic violence affects the victim, families, co-workers, and community. It causes diminished psychological and physical health, decreases the quality of life, and results in decreased productivity. The national economic cost of domestic and family violence is estimated to be over 12 billion dollars per year.” (Huecker & Smock, 2019, p. 1)
Domestic violence is found across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. This means that it is a nationwide issue irrespective of community and economic capacity. Witnessing abuse also causes the same degree of mental health harm as experiencing the abuse directly (Tsavoussis et al., 2014). Another factor that is found to be commonly tied to premature aging and poor outcomes for children when they reach adulthood, are those who were raised in environments where one or both parents are considered “cold.”
Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers
Just as early life stress can impact brain development, lack of essential affection can also play a role in the psychological development of a child as much as it also offers increased outcomes that result in physical disease, premature aging, and early death (Knutsen et al., 2019). The way in which parents, caregivers, or teachers communicate with children can also trigger trauma (La Buissonnière-Ariza et al., 2019). Harsh parenting, as described by researchers La Buissonnière-Ariza and colleagues (2019) includes yelling, spanking, shaking them, or expressing anger frequently. They also found that the effects could be seen through the children’s teenage years and beyond. Harsh parenting affects the way in which teenage brains process fear, thus affecting behavior (La Buissonnière-Ariza et al., 2019). This processing of fear is later translated to adult anxiousness, which has been shown to be passed down from parent to child, and likely any adult caretaker or teacher to child as a child is very impressionable and their mind is in a constant state of learning to adapt to the environment for survival (Chang & Debiec, 2016).
It would make sense that a child would learn survival instincts from those who are responsible for their caretaking. Their immediate surroundings and exposure correlate with what their brain needs to adapt to in order to survive. Pairing this with DNA programmed epigenetic trauma inheritance, the child will adapt more readily to what their brain will deem as potential threats based upon their DNA, environment, and the behavior of those around them.
This leads to the next most influential aspect on a child’s psychological development through exposure. Peer involvement has been known to be influential primarily on teenage risk taking. This is the age where most parents are more concerned about the influence of peers on their children’s decisions. At this juncture, parents will be more mistrustful, put more pressure on their child to resist the peer pressure they may encounter, and amplified attempts to control the child occur. Peer influence alone cannot be considered without the correlation of the adult caretaker’s role in this influence.
Another aspect that has become increasingly more visible due to social media and larger online footprints by children and adults alike is victimization. The way in which a child is victimized by those of their own age group, peer group, and adults has grown exponentially due to the advent of the Internet. It is not as though these behaviors didn’t exist before; however, they are far more prolific and less hidden than they had been previously. What would have been the school bully and their group of friends, is now random strangers on the Internet banding together to attack random people due to any number of reasons why they choose to target an individual. No individual online is shielded from this activity today.
It would be apparent that this type of behavior would also program the developing brain to be more vigilant due to the obvious threatening nature of the behavior the recipient is exposed to. Erin Burke Quinlan and colleagues found that “the experience of chronic peer victimization during adolescence might induce psychopathology-relevant deviations from normative brain development. Early peer victimization interventions could prevent such pathological changes” (2018). Al Race, the Deputy Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard has stated that chronic stress does impact brain development, immune system response, cardiovascular functionality, and metabolic regulation (2020). It is also very likely that students who experience stress at home are more likely to also experience stress at school. However, it is not definitive and there will be exceptions to this. The trouble is that the prevalence of peer victimization leaves no child untouched. Those who experience trauma outside of school will be even more likely to experience dramatic increases in physical and psychological stress responses that will decrease their overall psychological development, physical development, and social development. All of which will impact learning.
One of the most critical aspects in identifying which children are experiencing this degree of trauma is their inability to form meaningful relationships. They are wary of adults, so they do not trust the adults in their world to provide a safe environment that will protect and nurture them. If these adults do not protect them from outside abuse, they are also deemed untrustworthy and as such, are frequently rebelled against.
We tend to think of trauma as the result of a frightening and upsetting event. But many children experience trauma through ongoing exposure, throughout their early development, to abuse, neglect, homelessness, domestic violence or violence in their communities. And it’s clear that chronic trauma can cause serious problems with learning and behavior. (Miller, 2020, para. 1)
These children may find themselves targets of additional abuse from peers due to their inability to form relationships. Some may become bullies and their understanding of relationships is through domination and control. This would have been learned from the way that relationships are formed in their homes, in their community, and even in their classrooms. Many ways they may exhibit these behaviors include poor self-regulation, negative thinking, executive function issues, hypervigilance, and difficulty forming bonds (Miller, 2020).
What we see in our schools is a significant over-diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or other such labels such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder. The solution is to medicate the child and reinforce behavior through punishment and reward systems, all of which feed directly into future street drug abuse and further reinforcement that their feelings are invalid, thus perpetuating the brain’s instinct to self-protect. The fact that these drugs have been used on children long before we even understood the way in which their brains develop in response to trauma is highly unethical and should very much be called into question.
Recent efforts to curb trauma have been the use of meditation and other self-soothing strategies. In fact, it would appear that every single solution ever suggested is a band-aid rather than a cure to the trauma that we continue to perpetuate for children across America. There have been some studies that have identified that there are some children who appear to be more resilient to maltreatment than others, which is explained by the way their brain networks altered development (Ohashi et al., 2018). What these studies do not include are the other factors in these children’s lives that may have compensated for the exposure to trauma.
There have been numerous studies that have pointed to workaholic tendencies appearing in some who respond to stress by working more and dissociating through focus (Reyson et al., 2014). This can also be found through students who dive deeply into literature or the arts. The way in which many school districts across the nation are removing the arts and physical education from their programs in favor of longer class periods focusing on math and other “staple” subjects only reinforces the increased result of more children finding themselves medicated in order to be functional in the classroom.
One way or another, their brain will dissociate. For some, it will be forced medication rather than a choice they would have made for themselves that would very likely be more beneficial and would expand their knowledge and capacity to understand the world around them through artistic expression and exploration. In fact, it is quite easy to find a multitude of research studies that date back for the last 30 years supporting the way in which studying the arts, especially music, actually builds more neurotransmitters in the brain between regions of the brain (Gangrade, 2012).
What is to be done with the children who are facing systemic abuse? They can’t escape it no matter where they go. They could be living in a society that is abusive toward them for their appearance, for their lineage, or for the language barrier. Their families may be refugees fleeing war in their homelands and they not only faced trauma from where they came, but also trauma along the journey, only to find themselves further traumatized by the society that was their hope for salvation. Boston Children’s Hospital has done an in-depth study on what happens to their brain development and their outcomes in adolescence as a result of their experiences (2018). No manner of education in this realm will change the systemic attitudes of the society they find themselves seeking refuge in. They have been marked as easy prey, and easy prey they will be.
This is further evidence of what family separation can do to a developing mind, yet we find countless examples of family separation in America every single day. Whether this be by divorce, escaping from abuse, or from having the system remove children for what may or may not be actual abuse. It further traumatizes the child beyond the trauma they have already experienced more often than not (D’Onofrio & Emery, 2019).
It would be short-sighted to not consider the long-term implications of childhood trauma and the way it is reinforced through normalized trauma. The long-term trajectory shows increased mental illness and physical diseases into adulthood for many who have experienced childhood trauma (Mock & Arai, 2011). A long-term survey collected data from over 600,000 Americans between 2009-2017 to learn how common mental illness has become. During this time depression in people between 20-21 years of age increased from 7 percent to 15 percent. Those between the ages of 16 and 17 had an increase of depression of 69 percent (Twenge et al., 2019). Those between 18 to 25 years old saw a surge in psychological distress which was found among 71 percent of those surveyed (Twenge et al., 2019). Suicide attempts for those between 22 and 23 doubled and more than 55 percent had suicidal thoughts (Twenge et al., 2019). It was also found that the prevalence of increases was found among girls and young women (Twenge et al., 2019).
Another study in North Carolina with 1,402 participants whom they followed from 9 years of age until 30 stated that,
Childhood trauma exposure is a common experience that affects boys and girls and different racial/ethnic groups at similar rates. Such exposures are associated with an array of childhood psychiatric problems and other familial hardships and adversities. Our study suggested that childhood trauma casts a long and wide-ranging shadow, showing associations with elevated risk for adult psychiatric status, important domains of functioning (health, risky and/or criminal behavior, financial/educational functioning, and social functioning). This increased risk persisted when accounting for (1) childhood psychiatric problems, (2) other family and individual hardships and adversities, and (3) adult exposure to traumatic events. (Copeland et al., 2018, p. 7)
Copeland and colleagues (2018) also found that cumulative trauma was directly correlated with all manner of diagnosed childhood behavioral disorders and childhood difficulties and hardships (Copeland et al., 2018). The long-term implications are quite clear and deeply studied. There is no lack of evidence to justify a substantial reconsideration of what we are subjecting children to in our classrooms and homes.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, amygdala volume is truncated in adolescent development due to the exposure to trauma or situations that the brain perceives as a threat. It has been found that this also contributes to depressive symptom severity in young adults (Daftary et al., 2018). This study took a sample size of 1,747 adults in Dallas and found that the issue was primarily located in the right portion of the amygdala in participants ranging from 18 - up through adults over 60 years of age (Daftary et al., 2018). What this suggests is that brain development limitations are permanent and as Copeland and colleagues found, will create continuous traumatic experiences throughout adulthood. The long-term effects not only impact the individual, but their current and future relationships.
Trauma is incredibly normalized in American society. It includes abuse and neglect, incarceration, bullying, parental abandonment, chronic unemployment, poverty, death of a loved one, car accidents, domestic violence, substance abuse, and community violence. The national average for adverse childhood experiences (ACE) includes 30 percent of the population with multiple ACE experiences and goes as high as 47 percent in certain segments of the country. Schools holding lockdown drills also contribute to the traumatization of children. The current response to society as a whole is to treat it as a dangerous threat. This has escalated over the last century. What used to be closet abuse is now rampant, visible abuse on a daily basis. Mere exposure to the daily news is traumatizing at this juncture.
We are also finding increasing examples of narcissistic abuse in leadership roles. Many of these angry people also overestimate their intelligence, which hinders the development of organizations and the potential capacity they may have if their leadership did not exhibit these traits (Zajenkowski & Gignac, 2018). Long-term family stability also relies upon fully developed prefrontal brain activity in order to ensure healthy relationships, which ultimately prevents more trauma from being experienced within the family unit (Ueda et al., 2018). Children who also grow up with targeted and socially supported abuse, such as racism, sexism, etc. also find themselves with increased levels of ACEs scores and predisposition to mental illness. The next chapter will discuss in more depth the role that epigentic trauma inheritance also plays for those who experienced genocide and other atrocities and how that is visible in today’s classrooms.
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