An essential guide for recognizing, preventing and healing childhood trauma, from infancy through adolescence — what parents, educators, and health professionals can do.
Trauma can result not only from catastrophic events such as abuse, violence or loss of loved ones, but from natural disasters and everyday incidents such as auto accidents, medical procedures, divorce, or even falling off a bicycle. At the core of this book is the understanding of how trauma is imprinted on the body, brain, and spirit, resulting in anxiety, nightmares, depression, physical illnesses, addictions, hyperactivity, and aggression. Rich with case studies and hands-on activities, Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes gives insight into children’s innate ability to rebound with the appropriate support, and provides their caregivers with tools to overcome and prevent trauma.
Each year more than four million children in the United States are exposed to a traumatic event.1 That figure is an underestimation, valid only if we narrowly restrict our definition of trauma to self-evident adverse circumstances such as sexual or physical abuse, serious injury, or the loss or death of a loved one. As Peter Levine and Maggie Kline show in this groundbreaking volume, trauma resides not in the external event but in how the child’s nervous system processes that event. Based on Dr. Levine’s decades of pioneering work, they make clear that it’s the storage and freezing of unresolved emotions triggered by adverse events that create the long-term negative impact.
As a physician whose current work is with drug addicts, I see daily how early traumatic experiences are stored in people’s brains and bodies and are daily “acted out” in the form of violence towards others or “acted in,” in the form of self-harming beliefs and behaviors.
The prevention or compassionate and astute handling of potentially traumatic influences is essential. We now know that negative experiences do far more than form bad memories or unconscious negative dynamics: they can cause lifelong alterations in brain chemistry and body physiology. Such experiences can act even on the unborn child. A recent study found that, at one year of age, the infants of women traumatized during their pregnancies by the 9/11 tragedy had abnormal blood levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.2According to numerous human and animal studies, adverse early experiences may lead to permanent imbalances of essential brain chemicals that modulate mood and behavior.
Many “ordinary,” everyday happenings that we take for granted as inevitable facts of life can become traumatic, and the younger the child, the less obviously harmful those occurrences need be in order to leave a traumatic impact. A “minor” fall, for example, can become traumatic if the child is not supported in processing it in a healthy way and especially if she is shamed for “over-reacting” or labeled as “too sensitive.” An elective medical procedure can also have long-term negative effects if the child is not adequately supported and prepared, and if his reactions are not empathically received. As Levine and Kline convincingly argue, our culture imposes trauma upon children in many unwitting ways, from unnecessarily intrusive birth practices and institutionalized and mechanical pedagogic techniques, to divorce cases in which the child’s emotional needs are lost amidst the parents’ mutual anguish.
The positive message of this book is that many of these traumas can be prevented, and where the events themselves are unavoidable their traumatic impact can be avoided or, at least, minimized. The key is allowing and encouraging children to flow through the natural trajectory of their emotional shock reactions to difficult events without attempting to censor or control these reactions, preaching to our children, or projecting our own fears and anxieties.
The foundational truth imparted by the authors is that the adult’s first task is to attend to his or her own emotional state, since it’s only in the adult’s calm, competent, and reassuring presence that children find the space to resolve their tensions. Who we are being is more important than what we are doing. More accurately, who we are being when facing an upsetting situation will dictate both the form and the impact of what we do. Levine and Kline allow us to practice for our role as trauma healers by using the best possible coaches: our own bodies and feelings.
The “trauma proofing” techniques Levine and Kline outlined in this book are masterful in their wisdom and simplicity, in their step-wise attention to detail, and in the clear rationale for their application. The authors take care to apply their principles in practical ways to the specific needs of the different stages of childhood, from infancy to adolescence.
Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes is neither an academic textbook-although it could usefully replace many-nor a how-to-deal-with-trauma self-help tome. It’s a teaching written to awaken the loving discernment of the nurturing adult, whether as parent or professional, and a handbook to guide us in supporting children through difficulties that, absent our compassionate and skillful intervention, could leave them scarred for life.
I wouldn’t know what other work to compare this book to. Some books are said, in their originality, to “break the mold.” Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes goes one further: it creates its own mold in a way that everyone concerned with the health and happiness of children will be grateful for.
Author of “Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents
Need to Matter More Than Peers” and
“When The Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection”
- Perry, B.D. “Neurobiological Sequelae of Childhood Trauma: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Children,” in Murberg, M., ed, Catecholamines in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Emerging Concepts. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1994, 253-276.
- Yehuda R. et. al. “Transgenerational Effects of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Babies of Mothers Exposed to the World Trade Center Attacks during Pregnancy.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 90, no. 7: 4115-4118.