A Social Worker Helper article reports that children who are in an abusive environment develop survival behaviors that make it difficult for them to move past the trauma they experienced.
Humans adapt in order to survive. We respond to situations of varying threat levels thanks to the survival part of our brain, which tells our body to fight, flight, freeze, flop, and friend (fffff).
This area of our brain is connected to our respiratory, digestive, and cardiovascular systems, as well as our temperature.
When we feel scared the brain goes into survival mode and releases potent stress hormones, triggering the fffff response. Once in this mode, we may experience increased heart rate, shallow breathing, a faint feeling, or the need to empty your bowels or bladder, amongst other things.
Usually this response lasts about 45 minutes before stress levels drop, but for children who are constantly exposed to an abusive, chaotic, or uncaring environment, their brains are always in survival mode.
Remaining in this mode makes them hyper alert. If they are in this mode too often when they are young, then the brain develops more as a survival brain, which means they are constantly sensing and preparing for threats.
Children in abusive environments commonly develop survival behaviors. Those behaviors are:
Regression is expressed by acting babyish and helpless. For instance, an 8-year-old unable to feed his-or-herself
This behavior is often developed through the need to feel physical contact and the recognition that babies usually receive more help and kindness. Children presenting regression signs are often seeking physical closeness.
This survival behavior is presented by a child going into fffff mode at the smallest incident, such as a lost pencil, an accidental shove, or a small scratch.
Since the child’s brain is hyper vigilant, it immediately responds to these incidents as threats. Usually children respond with flight, but if they are cornered they will respond with fight.
This coping mechanism involves ‘zoning out’ as a way to disconnect from the situation. Disassociation physically represents itself as staring ahead or not responding to requests from adults. It can look like defiance or non-compliance.
Disassociation helps with coping in a more soothing way as constant muscle tension, nausea, increased heart rate, etc. are not sustainable reactions to perceived threats over a long period of time.
Moving past trauma
The survival part of our brain is not designed for constant activation. Humans are not meant to live in survival mode.
Children in abusive environments experience survival reactions and stress hormones earlier and often more frequently, making them accustomed to hyper alertness.
To help traumatized children, be a calm and empathetic adult in their lives. Research how best to support them and help them manage their overactive and reactive survival-focused brain.