Thursday, March 31, 2016

This is Your Brain on Trauma

Q: I've been avoiding my 16-year-old daughter's room because I simply can't stand the mess she creates. I admit, I just didn't want to deal with one more argument. I was looking for something the other day and I needed to go into her room. Oh my goodness...what a disaster! After years of teaching her how to organize (she came to us at age three after an early history of trauma), I simply can't figure out how her room could be this horrible and downright disgusting. Please help!

A: The art and skill of organizing takes a well-developed brain. The prefrontal cortex is the area of thebrain that gives us the ability to plan, organize, and problem solve. To keep a room clean and in order, it takes all three of these skills. Science tells us that this area is one of the last areas of the brain to mature and it can take up to 25 years for someone to fully develop his or her prefrontal cortex when living in an optimal environment for all of those 25 years.

Early childhood trauma can severely impact how the brain develops throughout the entire developmental journey into adulthood, even if the child is taken out of trauma and placed in a loving and positive environment. The early wiring of the brain, as in your daughter's case from birth to three years old (and perhaps even in-utero), will influence how the brain continues to develop throughout her life, especially in her teenage years.

While it is very frustrating as a parent to continually see your child's room resemble a war zone, I believe one of the best ways to curb this frustration is to understand what trauma does to a child's brain. It isn't that your child "won't" keep her room clean, it's that she "can't" keep her room clean (at least not yet..there's still time for the brain to develop).

In the late 80's, you may remember the commercial for the anti-drug campaign that showed an egg on a hot frying pan with the slogan, "This is your brain on drugs." I'll take the creative liberty here to modifythis for our children impacted by trauma to say, "This is your brain on trauma."

When you see your daughter's room, simply repeat this phrase in your head, over and over again. It will help keep you from being reactive, frustrated, and feeling as if she is just being lazy, defiant, or unappreciative. It truly is why she is having such a difficult time.

Trauma also puts children in a place where they get overwhelmed very easily. Perhaps you helped her clean and organize her room a few months ago but once a few things were left on the floor, then a few more, and then a few more, in a very short amount of time, a point of no return was reached. The quick build-up of mess would easily have gotten her so overwhelmed and stressed-out that she simply had to shut-down the idea of cleaning it up again.

Additionally, some children with histories of trauma often have a hard time throwing items away. What may look like trash to you, is not trash to them. Objects, and I mean any objects, are tangible and they can represent value. And most importantly, they represent security. If you felt safer surrounding yourself with items of value, you too would most likely completely fill your room with items, no matter the mess.

Even with these explanations, I still believe it is our duty as parents to help our children overcome the deficiencies they have in keeping a room organized. First, you must let go of the negativity and accept the disorder and chaos in her room as a byproduct of trauma. Then, work with your daughter to help her organize. This may require dropping your expectations of her being able to do it on her own because she is 16-years-old. When your offer to help is free from anger, frustration, and disapproval, she is more likely to be able to accept your help.

Chunking the task of cleaning her room into smaller segments at a time can help to minimize the overwhelm. Start with just the dresser one day. The next day, tackle underneath the bed (or maybe that will take two days!). Then move to the closet, and so onThis may be something you need to do with her for several months or maybe even a year or two years. You'll be setting into motion new patterns and new habits, which will eventually lay down new neuropathways in the brain.

No matter how long it takes, just keep saying to yourself, "This is your brain on trauma." and I know you'll get there! Trust in the process and trust that love will never fail.

Press on,
HeatherHeather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.