Psychophysiological reactions to traumatic stress have been known to occur since ancient times. Traumatized people may 1) re-experience the event through obsessive recollections, flashbacks, or nightmares; 2) exhibit avoidant reactions; and/or 3) be easily hyper-aroused and vigilant.
Children whose families and homes do not provide consistent safety, comfort, and protection may develop ways of coping that allow them to survive and function day to day. For instance, they may be overly sensitive to the moods of others, always watching to figure out what the adults around them are feeling and how they will behave. They may withhold their own emotions from others, never letting them see when they are afraid, sad, or angry. These kinds of learned adaptations make sense when physical and/or emotional threats are ever-present. As a child grows up and encounters situations and relationships that are safe, these adaptations are no longer helpful, and may in fact be counterproductive and interfere with the capacity to live, love, and be loved.
The importance of a child’s close relationship with a caregiver cannot be overestimated. Through relationships with important attachment figures, children learn to trust others, regulate their emotions, and interact with the world; they develop a sense of the world as safe or unsafe, and come to understand their own value as individuals. When those relationships are unstable or unpredictable, children learn that they cannot rely on others to help them. Children who do not have healthy attachments may have trouble controlling and expressing emotions, and may react violently or inappropriately to situations.
Children who have experienced complex trauma often internalize and/or externalize stress reactions. Their emotional responses may be unpredictable or explosive and they may react to a reminder of a traumatic event with anger. This person may have difficulty calming down when upset. Since the traumas are often of an interpersonal nature, even mildly stressful interactions with others may serve as trauma reminders and trigger intense emotional reactions. Defensive postures are protective when an individual is under attack but become problematic in situations that do not warrant such intense reactions. Adaptive responses exhibited when faced with a perceived threat may be out of proportion compared to most people’s reaction to a normal stress. These reactions are often perceived by others as overreacting or as unresponsive or detached. Often both kinds of responses can be seen in an individual who has been traumatized as a child.
After becoming highly involved in adoption communities, I have learned a lot more about the effects of adoption trauma that both of my parents may have experienced. Trauma is a constant theme in adoption related communities. The first trauma is separation from the mother who’s womb the baby grew in. When an infant is still preverbal, the body remembers what the brain did not have language to interpret. For adoptees placed with abusive adoptive parents the trauma multiplies. This happens more often than most people might believe, due to the parents’ own unresolved feelings related to infertility and their knowledge that this child is not the one who would have been in their life with their own genetics – but for.
Within the community, it is frequently suggested how necessary it is to find a trauma-informed therapist because a therapist without this specialized perspective could do more harm than good.
Many people continue to reflect on the slap known around the world. Having an understanding of the behavioral effects of trauma, really put “the slap known around the world” event into perspective for me.
In his autobiographical book, “Will,” Smith recounts that as a child he witnessed domestic violence in his home. “When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed. I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am.”
“Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”
Seeing the look on his wife Jada’s face, after she was targeted for having a shaved head due to suffering the disease of Alopecia by the comedian Chris Rock, it is quite likely Smith re-experienced that memory in the context of current events. In effect, however wrong, he could make up for his childhood inability to protect the woman he loved. His reaction that night had more to do with that 9 year old traumatized little boy, than the man he had become since then. That man unfortunately is now subject to public reinterpretation. I admit to being a fan of Will Smith movies in general and have loved his easy going personality in most of these.
All this to highlight the extreme importance of understanding the impact of an experienced trauma and the need to seek help in the form of trauma-informed therapy. Domestic violence is a devastating problem that affects individuals all over the world. I recently saw a video of Smith listening to his wife honestly describe her extra-marital affairs. His ability to listen and to take that knowledge in impassively, may have also been a trauma induced behavior from his childhood. The fear of losing the love of a manipulative person and at the same time needing the love of that person perhaps triggered the response the world witnessed.