Trauma Versus Toxic Environments
Most people focus on trauma when they think of a child enduring lasting harm. Yet the reality is that even severe traumas mean very little in the long run. A child can be raped, beaten within an inch of her life and left for dead on the side of the road, and still recover fully and completely in a relatively short time in the right environment. Isolated traumas don't necessarily equal any lasting damage. As one group of researchers noted, "resilience is often the most commonly observed outcome trajectory following exposure to a potentially traumatic event." (Bonanno, Rennicke & Dekel, 2005)
Studies show that not only do the vast majority of people do quite well after a major trauma, but many of them claim that their lives were even enhanced by the experience. (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004; Linley & Joseph, 2004; Carver, 1998) Most people tend to overestimate the negative impact that a trauma will have on their life. (Taylor, 1983; Gilbert, Driver-Linn & Wilson, 2002; Wilson & Gilbert, 2003) As Daniel Gilbert (2006, p. 153) states, "the fact is that most folks do pretty darn good when things go pretty darn bad." Children are no different. In fact, they tend to heal on average much better than adults, because they don't as easily form the catastrophic belief systems that contribute to harm.
On the flip side, even seemingly minor negative elements in the environment can, over time, wreak more havoc on a child's general welfare than most isolated traumas would. It's not just negative experiences, but persistent negative experiences, that cause lasting injury. An overwhelming amount of evidence shows that over time seemingly small factors can amount to a very big deal if they remain persistent. (see our book: Child Maltreatment, A Cross-Comparison.) Research shows that big problems such as antisocial behavior often arise through subtle, consistent negative environmental elements, not any particular significant event or trauma. (Loeber, Keenan & Zhang, 1997) As Ramey & Ramey (1999) point out, the accumulation of life's experiences is what matters most. Numerous models of harm indicate that it is an accumulation of risk factors, and not isolated trauma or harm, that leads to poor life outcomes. (Rutter, 1979; Sameroff et al., 1987; Sameroff et al., 1998)
This requires readers to alter their perceptions somewhat about exactly what poses the biggest threat to a child. Trauma makes for great drama, but assuming it poses the largest threat to a child's welfare makes for lousy science. Seemingly minor negative elements can accumulate and cause much more damage than a trauma would. Likewise, when a trauma becomes damaging, it's because of ongoing negative elements in response to the trauma that in turn creates a lasting injury, not the trauma itself. As we stated at the start of this book, children can recover from ANY trauma one could dream up, yet for one reason or another, they're not always given the chance. An experience needs one of the following aggravators for it to create lasting injury:
A) A negative response
A negative response by caretakers can turn even a positive experience into an injurious one, and it can certainly make a negative experience a thousand times worse. So it's extremely important that parents take caution to ensure they aren't introducing negative ideas in response to the situation, as these will endure long past the experience is over and can easily become the primary source of injury. For example, let's say two children are molested, both enduring the same uncomfortable but non-aggressive acts by the same person. Each disclose what happened to their parents, and each set of parents prevent a future recurrence.
At this point these two experiences are the same. But one child's set of parents (perhaps quite understandably but not reasonably) respond with anger. They act in a distraught manner. They talk about how their child's innocence has been stolen. They sit down and have a talk about what a horrible thing this was. They call the acts a "sick, sick, disgusting thing." They condemn the person who did it, and often encourage the child to react in hatred or retaliation against the offender through the justice system. As natural as such a reaction may seem, every action thus far has been a horrible mistake. All of this not only adds stress which can be every bit as severe and likely more severe than the original molestation, but it teaches the child extremely negative, destructive interpretations about the event. They've solidified the experience in destructive energy, which means that every time the child is reminded of it, anytime the news mentions molestation, anytime a drama show discusses similar topics, the child is going to be flooded with negative emotions and destructive psychological energy, not from the acts she experienced but because these are the responses that were modeled for her. They've just replaced an isolated, mildly uncomfortable experience with thousands of negative experiences that she'll endure for decades to come, and it was all in the response that modeled negative ideas. The molester did the action, but it was the parents who created all the lasting injury behind that action by their response to it.
Meanwhile, the parents of the second child react in a calm and controlled manner. They listen intently and talk in a nonchalant way about what happened. They inform her that what this person did was wrong because it made her uncomfortable and they did it in secrecy, but they don't stigmatize the event. They explain that sexuality is a natural part of life that everyone will eventually experience, so she shouldn't feel the least bit embarrassed about what occurred. They let her know that they don't think any differently of her. They tell her that nothing about her body and nothing about the experience is anything to be embarrassed about. They let her know it's OK to have mixed feelings; that it's perfectly natural to be curious or to find certain things exciting while not liking other things. They explain that when she get's older, she may want to do similar things herself with someone she loves, and that the reason she may have found it uncomfortable now is because she isn't quite ready for such things yet. In the mean time, they talk openly about sex and answer any questions she may have. They respond in a comforting way that eliminates, not adds, any negative ideas about the experience. It becomes just another interesting but psychologically insignificant event in her life. One child's suffering ended that day, while the other's was just beginning... and it all had to do with whether the parents modeled a positive or negative response.