How Parents Accidentally Cause Trauma in Kids-- and 1 way to avoid it

    crowded beach, 480 beach view by apium, creative commons attribution licenseAs a lifelong waterbaby, I spent a lot of time very happily in the water. Our spot on the beach was shady and warm, the lake was cool and perfect for swimming and the beach was perfect for picnics and suntanning. There were a lot of other people, teens in groups, friends in pairs, and families, who agreed. It was a very busy beach.

    Big foot by Russ, creative commons attribution licenceMy enjoyment of the day was upset as I watched in distress as a dad was happily and accidentally traumatizing his baby. I noticed them because although they were 200 metres away, I could hear her screaming in terror, every time he put her into the water.

    I felt a strong urge to tell him why she was screaming and what to do about it, but my experience with ‘telling adults’ things they don’t already know has been spotty, and I have a low threshold for tolerating verbal abuse these days, so I left it and thought about a blog post… I wasn’t sure how to frame it so I let it be.

    A few weeks later, at an outdoor hotel pool, another baby was with another dad holding his baby (about the same age as the first) in the water as she was smiling and giggling, splashing happily.

    One thing was different for the babies, and it’s one thing –when you know—makes all the difference to the experience for the baby in the water.

    Let me go back to the ‘accidentally traumatizing’ part first:Children don't experience trauma from their hurt; they experience trauma from being alone with their hurt. Gabor Maté

    Gabor Maté says it this way: trauma isn’t what happens to the child, it’s what happens inside the child; trauma isn’t feeling hurt or confused, it’s being alone with that hurt and confusion.

    This child at the lake has nowhere to go for help with her terror, because even screaming loud enough to be heard across a very busy beach wasn’t sufficient to get empathy or compassion from the parent holding her (and she has no way, at 6 or 7 months old, to get where the other parent might.)

    She is experiencing whole-body terror, yet dad seems joyful –smiling and laughing. In this confusion, she learns to mistrust what is happening in her body.

    For her, dad can’t be wrong because he’s the one with all the experience in the world that she needs to learn about, so she –her body—must be wrong. She naturally concludes, before she even has words to think about it, that she doesn’t know what joyful fun or terror feel like. They are all stirred up together.

    The second baby was experiencing inner and outer alignment with reality: her smiling, happy parent matched her smiling, happy exploration of the water. The mirror of her parent’s context matches her inner experience. Thus, no confusion.

    One piece of information would have made all the difference in the world to the first baby, and the second baby’s parents may not even have known it, explicitly, in their own minds. They may have been handled that way when they were babies, or seen others with happy, exploring babies to see how it’s done. But before I get to that one piece of information…

    A quick fyi, to clarify where this all stands:All Parents Love Their Children

    All parents love their children.

    Many parents don’t understand the impact of what they’re doing, because they’re very often only focused on their own intent.

    The dad at a beach this summer was likely thinking he was ‘helping’ baby enjoy the water, ‘helping’ her feel safe, ‘helping’ her to learn to swim.

    The dad at the hotel pool was also probably thinking the same things…

    To be clear why this is confusing: humans cannot experience the intent within other peoples’ heads, they can only feel what is happening to them and see what is on other peoples’ faces and bodies (posture, tone of voice, etc.)

    To the one piece of information, in two parts:

    When a baby is laid back into water, their inborn startle (Moro) reflex is triggered. It’s a reflex built into their bodies to protect their heads when they’re falling. The first baby feels like she’s falling and is naturally afraid (it is one of the most fundamental, built-in fears.)

    The second baby is facing the water, supported by her chest, and is free to explore because she feels safe. Babies naturally feel safe when their bodyweight is on the front of their torso, and it relaxes them.

    Either one of these facts would have completely changed the first baby’s experience at the lake. Tell your friends.


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