It was the summer of ’76 when my dad drove our family to California for a vacation. I was four-years-old in the backseat of a sweaty, hot car as we made our way to the Golden State – approximately 1,900 miles from my hometown. When we arrived, we checked in at the hotel and then headed straight to the beach. Warm sand hitting my toes. Sun setting across the distant ocean. Taking in the glory in front of us.
I cautiously approached the water with my green flip-flops on. Dipped my toes in and then took a few steps. The tide came up, pulled my flip-flops right off of my feet and swept them out to sea. Dad exclaimed, “Jaws got them!” as he tried to cheer up his sad little girl. (The original movie just came out the summer before our trip. Plus, about a mile from our beach, someone caught the largest Great White in California history, at that time.)
The rest of the beach vacation consisted of me digging holes in the sand, running close enough to the water to fill a small bucket, and pouring it in the sand; my attempt at building my own little ocean so that I didn’t have to go where Jaws lived.
Ocean animals have terrified me ever since. I love looking at the ocean, but you won’t ever catch me swimming in open water. I won’t book cruises and can barely watch movies that contain deep water/giant creatures that could eat me for lunch.
My four-year-old brain heard my Dad say, “Jaws got them!” My brain signaled that the ocean and sharks are something to avoid. Digging a hole to create my own little ocean was a way for me to build a safe place where I knew I could survive without the giant monsters looming in the water.
This is similar to what we see with children who have experienced trauma. (For the record, I’m absolutely not saying that my experience at the ocean is as serious as traumatic events of abuse.) This experience instantaneously changed my view of the ocean and it has stayed that way ever since the summer of ’76. The holes I dug really didn’t create more safety for me even though my brain convinced me otherwise.
Just as happy experiences alter development of the brain (in a positive way), trauma does so as well. But not in a good way. Instead, the brain develops patterns for survival. For some kids, it may look like hoarding food even though there is plenty to eat. For others, it could be locking every door they enter just in case someone tries to come in.
Some kids run away from their caregivers (even ones who are safe) and keep running to avoid any type of attachment or relationship. Kids may lie to avoid a beating, although they are no longer in an environment where beating occurs. For others, it looks like claiming control of everybody and everything they can (even animals) because they could not control what happened to them in the past.
Changing the landscape to which kids from hard places view life includes us changing our perceptions of trauma. The brain controls our action – even when we don’t understand it. From fear to elation, everything that happens all comes to down to brain chemistry, connectivity and development.
When I revealed that his words forever altered my view of the ocean and aquatic life, my dad was quite surprised. He had no idea that experience in the summer of ’76 had an impact on me. Families who care for traumatized children mustn’t be surprised when the child pulls away from nurturing or hides food in their sock drawer. Or, runs away from the home. They need to know that it isn’t the child’s response to them but to trauma.
As we end National Child Abuse Prevention Month and move into Foster Care Awareness Month in the US, let’s strive to truly and deeply understand trauma and the subsequent life-long impact it has on the developing brain.