Sunday, July 16, 2006


Traumatized development changes a person’s ability to focus and changes the way they pay attention. The children we work with are often hyper alert, and tune into to many nuances of their environment with great clarity. These are the children who know every staff’s schedules, and what car they drive. They know more than we realize because they have listened to phone calls and conversations that we thought were private. They over-react to change: in routine, in tone of voice, in the environment. They have little ability to screen out events. When another child is having a problem, they are having a problem. It is as if they have no skin, no filter. This is a painful way to live.

It is also important to realize that this attention is primarily a screening for danger. When an organism senses danger, the first step is to scan the environment for the source of that danger, to evaluate the direction and the severity of the threat. During that scan, one cannot take in other aspects of the environment- whether it is beautiful, what new activities are going on, etc. The only information absorbed is that relevant to danger. Our children always sense danger.

In order to understand the quality of this experience, picture yourself walking down a street in New York City with some friends at 2:00 on a sunny afternoon. You are looking around, appreciating the architecture, enjoying the people on the street, noticing a new restaurant, looking in store windows, enjoying talking with your friends, relaxed and open. Then picture yourself walking down that same street at 2:00 A.M. by yourself. Now you are tense and scanning for danger. You notice movement and how close/far people are to you. You do not appreciate their unique style, you evaluate them for threat. You completely miss the architecture and you don’t see the stores, but you are exceptionally aware of lighted areas, dark areas, open doors, potential sources of harm and help.

If some one asked you questions about the street after each experience, what you could remember and report would be very different.

Our children’s experience is always the 2:00 a.m. scared experience. So we have to realize they may not be taking in a lot of what is around them, especially sources of pleasure, opportunities for growth, and things to learn. Our best help to them is to provide safety and to soothe, to help calm the activated nervous system. Only then will it be useful to point out positive and joyful aspects of life, and draw them slowly into an experience that includes more than survival.

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