How a Child's Mind Differs From an Adult's Mind & What This Means About Their Ability to Cope
Although kids cope with adversity in many of the same ways as adults, a child's mind is different from an adult's in a few distinct ways:
A) A child's brain is high on feeling, low on control
Because reasoning and impulse control centers are the slowest to reach maturity, children have less cognitive control over their thoughts. This means that a child's brain relies more on outside support in order to regulate itself. When a child's emotional centers are active, the area of the brain that is involved in moderating these signals is less equipped at suppressing them, and so they can easily overwhelm a child. (One of the reasons tantrums are a common childhood event.) This leaves kids more dependent upon adults to help them manage their psychology, which can be either a blessing or a curse depending on the mental state of the adults around them.
B) A child's innocence & freedom in thinking
A child's brain is less cluttered. Whereas adults are filled with a thousand-and-one variations of neurosis that clog their thinking and cause them to interpret things in a certain way, the minds of children are relatively unburdened. In essence, the adult mind is like a prisoner in a dungeon shackled in heavy chains. The child's mind is like a butterfly...free to flutter about without running into preprogrammed beliefs that force them into particular views. I suspect this is what adults really mean when they talk about a child's innocence. It has nothing to do with what kids do or do not experience. It's about a mind that is unconstrained and uncluttered, free from the shame, defense mechanisms, learned associations, and conditioned responses that burden us grown-ups.
This mental flexibility is undoubtedly a blessing and a child's greatest asset. A parent who learns their child was "molested" will likely become instantly disturbed and deeply distressed before even learning a single detail about what actually transpired. This distress is not a response to the child's experience; they don't even know the specific of what that experience was. It's the despair induced by a lifetime of social messages that train us to think about something in a certain way. The child, on the other hand, is free from these mental binds. So unless threats or force or aggression or pain were involved, a child is unlikely to be significantly distressed. Until, of course, the child learns to interpret this experience through the same destructive prism that adults have been conditioned with.
Parents should do all they can to make their mind more like the child's, and accept things unconditionally and without harsh judgment. Don't add extra significance or symbolic meaning to the subject, which will trap your child's butterfly-like mind in a jar.
C) How new information causes a reorganization of memory
On a related note, because children are constantly learning new information that alters their world view, a child's memories are constantly being reorganized and adjusted according to changing knowledge. Adults go through this reorganization too, only far less often and to a smaller degree each time, since new knowledge generally results in smaller and smaller alterations to one's world view.
For example, take a lie that most parents tell their children: Santa Claus. Let's say a little girl is taught to believe in Santa Claus. Then, at the age of eight, she discovers that Santa Claus isn't real. This is only 1 bit of new information, but it's one that prompts a restructuring of several different ideas that can touch upon many other areas: who exactly it is that delivers her presents and why; parents are dishonest and lie to their children; scores of people (mall Santas, newscasters, teachers) can be involved in a deception; magical beliefs about the world, such as the idea of a fat man and reindeer flying through the sky on a sleigh, are mere fantasies; that adults invent comforting stories that are nicer to think about than the way the world really is; and so on. This one revelation creates a ripple effect that causes a child to change their interpretation of many other ideas and experiences.
Another example was demonstrated by a preacher's wife whom I saw on television a few years ago. This woman, who had apparently been living under a protective rock her whole life, was absolutely certain that AIDS was a scourge sent by God to destroy homosexuals. Then she took a trip to Africa, and discovered that HIV is a virus spread in many ways. (It arose in humans when hungry people butchered bush meat to feed their family, not because someone had sex with a monkey, as is often rumored to be the case.) During her trip she came across babies and young kids dying from the virus, and learned that HIV afflicted innocent children as readily as it did anyone else. This bit of information robbed her of her blissful ignorance and prompted a restructuring of the very way in which she viewed the world. She was essentially a 45-year-old with a child's mind, learning a basic fact of 4th grade biology that disrupted long-held beliefs about the way the world works. Learning that illness comes from pathogens and not sin forced her to think differently about things like the nature of disease, about why people get sick, about fairness and justice in suffering, and indeed, her views about what role God plays in the world.
Children undergo these types of transformational restructures at periodic times throughout their life, and periods of adversity are especially likely to prompt such changes in world view. Every time they acquire a new bit of knowledge or are exposed to a new belief, it may alter the way in which they perceive past experiences. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of negative beliefs out there which can restructure a child's view of their experiences in a negative way.
It's not uncommon for researchers to argue that the full impact of a traumatic event may not occur until the child matures enough to “fully comprehend and understand the incident.” (Pynoos, 1993) I'm constantly amazed that it never occurs to these dullards that the reason the "full impact" isn't realized until adulthood is because the damage has less to do with the experience than it does with added on social messages which train a child to see the situation in the most destructive way possible. It may indeed take a few days or weeks for shock to ware off before a trauma sinks in. But when a wound seems to grow progressively worse with time as a child grows and becomes "more aware," this is the psychological equivalent of water running uphill. Time should heal all wounds. So anytime a child's perception becomes more distressing as they grow, it's because the beliefs others are filling their head with (each of which causes a restructuring in how they view the world), are destructive. Sadly, as time progresses many adults work to wrap the child's mind in the same neurotic psychology that creates their own distress, which is why some children grow more disturbed as time goes by.
This is yet another reason why parents need to be so careful about the ideas they plant in a child’s head following a difficult experience. This also means it may be necessary to retouch upon the subject as children grow and mature, to ensure that they continue to view it in a productive way.