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Understanding Complex Trauma
Krista Nelson presents during a recent training on trauma.

I just got off the phone with a parent who had recently adopted a twelve year old boy and was at a point of real desperation. This parent has known her now son since he was a baby—the boy's birth father was a cousin of hers—but nothing prepared her for the behavior she was seeing today: taking and hiding food, stealing from peers, screaming like a toddler and not doing a thing she asked him to help around the home. Why did it seem to make it worse when she took away his iPod? He didn't try to do the smallest of things to earn his music back. Increasingly she saw the good start they had erode as he stayed in his room, threatening her when she tried to draw near. "Yes, he is a pre-teen, but this can't be normal?" she asked.

"Good question," I replied. My question back to her was, "What do you know about his earliest experiences of safety, stress and caregivers?" "What "blue print" got reinforced in his infant/toddler brain about how to discharge emotions like frustration, who helped him do that, how did he learn to let others know what he needed, who reflected back to him that he was noticed, that it felt good to be with him, that he was safe?"

Trauma is a word we typically associate with war, car accidents, or assaults – an overwhelming event that renders us helpless and remains in our bodies through flashbacks. However, those of us working with children who have experienced prolonged fear in the presence of adults who are supposed to protect them have needed a more specific definition of trauma to describe what we see.

I left this parent with four thoughts:

  1. Learn more about "complex trauma"—prolonged, developmentally adverse, relationally traumatic events that prime one's brain for living in chronic stress and keep him acting like a toddler when it comes to social or emotional things.
  2. See his behavior as survival—his old ways to get his needs met, etched in his neural networks.
  3. Find support to bring your own stress down so you can help him. Know that our brains don't stop growing, but can build new pathways with enough positive repetition of alternative safe experiences. You can provide him with these, bit by bit over time. .
  4. Learn more. Resources include: Dr. Bruce Perry research; National Child Traumatic Stress Network; Attachment, Self- Regulation and Competency Model from The Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute; parenting support from national advocate, Heather Forbes; and reports from Wilder Research on trauma-informed care and increasing accessibility to trauma-focused services.

Krista Nelson is the Project Coordinator for the Wilder Foundation Center for Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder. She reviews research on childhood attachment and trauma and translates results into practical interventions parents, teachers or child welfare and mental health professionals can use, both within Wilder and the community at large.




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Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, 451 Lexington Parkway North, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55104 Phone: 651-280-2000
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