The following day Joy Osofsky talked about trauma. She outlined ways in which children can be traumatized by adverse childhood experiences as noted in the “ACE” study, in the 1990’s, . She talked about how trauma affects children’s cognition, behaviors, emotions, and brain architecture. Finally, she described several ways traumatic sequelae can be healed. I would like to think of these issues in terms of a spectrum from normative stress, which can be positive, to trauma, with “tolerable” and “toxic stress” in the middle. I will explain more about this spectrum later on, but I want to introduce the idea of a spectrum of stress at this point, because I believe that much of what Joy was talking about in terms of trauma can also be true in situations of high stress – especially when it is prolonged – that do not reach the level of actual trauma.
Children are traumatized by child maltreatment; exposure to community violence in their neighborhoods and in their schools; exposure to domestic violence in their homes; exposure to or hearing about unusual traumatic events such as accidents, terrorist attacks, or hurricanes; military children when their parents are deployed; and exposure to violence in media (usually the effects of an earlier trauma will be exacerbated by subsequent exposure to media).
Joy and her husband were leaders in the psychological response to Katrina in New Orleans. She notes that the psychosocial impact of natural disasters can be similar to that of trauma. The impact is related to the disruption of family structures, changes in the ways people and communities relate to each other, and the taxing effect on the individual, family, school, and community infrastructure. The psychological referral rate for students was very high after Katrina and then declined, but subsequent smaller spikes seem to reflect retraumatization from other hurricanes, oil spills, etc. A child in my hospital clinic began waking up with nightmares after hearing Donald Trump on television saying that all Mexican immigrants should be deported, because she feared that she would lose her parents.
Interestingly, in New Orleans, the children who were integrated into East Baton Rouge schools had higher depression rates than the children who were able to return to their New Orleans schools. This seems to relate to the importance of a “sense of place”. Another window into trauma is the child welfare system, where children have experienced family violence, substance abuse, sexual abuse, removal from primary caregiver, subsequent placement in foster care, and physical abuse.
Trauma alters the developmental trajectory of the child. Joy referred to the children’s book, The Little Engine That Could. She said that trauma pushes the train off the track, and our job as mental health professionals is to help put the little train back on the track. Joy noted the continuum from stress to trauma, starting with normative, developmentally appropriate stress, then emotionally costly stress, sometimes called “toxic stress”, and finally trauma. Positive stress is necessary to healthy development. It occurs in the context of stable, supportive relationships and results in brief increases in heart rate and mild changes in stress hormone levels. Tolerable stress includes stress responses that could disrupt brain architecture but are buffered by supportive relationships that make it possible for the brain to heal. Toxic stress involves a strong, prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system in the absence of the buffering protection of adult support. Toxic stress can damage the developing brain architecture and create a short fuse for the body’s stress response systems, leading to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.