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Many children in care, who have experienced trauma, have poorly-organised and highly sensitive stress response systems – they are “turned up” and far more likely to over-react to the smallest perceived threat. Some, however, have learnt to react by dissociation rather than acting out.
Dissociation is understood as a mental process where a person disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity. It can be viewed on a continuum. At the low end it presents as something like daydreaming while driving a car i.e. when you arrive somewhere and don’t remember getting there, a sense of being on auto-pilot. In mild cases, dissociation is regarded as a coping mechanism to tolerate stress or intense emotions.
The experience of chronic trauma, such as repeated physical or sexual abuse or neglect, can cause a child or young person to ‘disconnect’ from reality as a means to cope. In these situations, the child feels unable to remove themselves physically form the situation – feels hopeless - and therefore adapts by almost creating a fictional reality in their mind when the trauma is occurring.
At these times, they completely disconnect from both their feelings and those of others. Over time they learn to disconnect from any intense feeling so it doesn’t keep hurting them. Instead of learning to regulate their emotions, they learn to ignore them. At a feeling level disconnection initially serves a purpose for traumatised children. It allows them to not feel the intensity of the violence they were originally faced with. However, over time disconnection stops them from feeling even positive feelings. It stops them from knowing there is a continuum of emotions.
This can lead to:
- Never owning up to anything they did wrong
- Not empathising with how someone else may have been hurt by their behaviours
- Feeling terrible and worthless
- Having no confidence in social settings
- Unable to trust themselves to stay calm because they could not control the intensity of their feelings
- Being particularly sensitive to criticism or feeling separate from others
- Unable to reconnect with another person after wronging them i.e. unable to repair relationships
This coping mechanism however does not work all the time. When the trauma is occurring, intense sensory and emotional memory traces are stored in the limbic system of the brain without a cortical reference point to understand them, i.e. the feelings have no context and little meaning. However these emotional states can be triggered by cues in the environment and/or by an internal emotional experiences. When triggered, the emotional states are re-experienced with similar intensity with which they are stored.