traumatized child

Becoming a better parent: The five dimensions of trauma

Our Westview team member, Josh Birney, joins Terry Owens in writing for our series, Becoming a Better Parent. In this article, Josh shares important ideas about “The five dimensions of trauma.” 

Most of us are not aware of all the ways that complex trauma can affect a person. Trauma is no respecter of persons. Children from all socio-economic backgrounds can experience trauma. When it enters the lives of children, complex trauma can change their entire being. Complex Trauma is the idea that a person has suffered or experienced multiple, sustained episodes of trauma. The effects of this trauma are complicated by the reality that children are still constructing their identity and learning coping skills. When we parent children that come from hard places, it is good to think about the broad range of effects trauma can have. We call them the five dimensions or the Five Bs of trauma.

Brain:  Trauma affects the development of the brain.  During trauma, the brain learns to stay in the downstairs brain (the amygdala, the survival brain). This means that higher brain functions like reason and logic (in the frontal cerebral cortex), may not work well in stressful or emotional situations.

Body: The stress response in the brain floods the body with chemicals to equip the body with the means to deal with the threat, whether actual or perceived. In complex trauma, the body continues to produce these chemicals, which when unused remain in the body, becoming toxic and causing harm. They can go unnoticed until they show up later as illness.

Beliefs: Going through trauma can change the way a person sees the world. Since the child is still framing their world view, these misperceptions are particularly damaging. These beliefs can change the way you see yourself and other people and they can hurt the way you interact with others. Based on your view of trust and safety, relationships can become harder to form and more vulnerable to small hurts.

Biology: Complex trauma can affect more than just one person; it can have lasting effects on a person’s genes. These chemical scars can be passed on to future generations and affect them in unforeseen ways.

Behavior: One of the ways we can see that trauma has impacted a person is through their behavior. We often notice behaviors but it is helpful to remember that behaviors are just a symptom of an underlying problem:  a need that is not met. In dealing with trauma, we should always be seeking to identify and meet the underlying need.

As parents, we should remember that maintaining good relationships with our kids can help heal the effects of that trauma. Being present with our children, listening to them carefully, helping in times of emotional distress, and being compassionate when they make mistakes can go a long way toward healing their brains, bodies, beliefs, biology, and behaviors.