I was traveling on the London underground and sat opposite me was a mother with her son of about 7 or 8 years old. I witnessed the following conversation:
Son – I was upset at school today mummy
Mother – oh, why’s that?
Son – the children laughed at me and I cried
Mother – which children?
Son – the children in my class
Mother – and you cried just because they laughed at you?
Son – it upset me
Mother (laughing) – what did you do for them to laugh?
Son – I told my teacher… [unable to hear what he said]
Mother (laughing) – maybe you were lying, that’s why they laughed
Son – I wasn’t lying, I was telling the truth
Mother (laughing) – I think you’re a liar (she prodded her son) you were lying that’s why the children laughed at you (more laughter)
Son – (went quiet and stared into space)
Mother – I’m right ya? (laughed) why else would they laugh at you, hey?
How did the mother’s response impact the child?
What will be the long-term consequences of this short interaction?
Let’s explore the initial story – the child spoke up and told his teacher something he believed was true (the content is irrelevant); the children laughed; he was upset and cried.
The shock of the laughter as he spoke up triggered a trauma response that resulted in the release of tears. Continued laughter by his classmates embedded his feelings of humiliation and ridicule. He turned to his mother; one person he trusted would support and protect him. Instead, he was further humiliated, disregarded and shamed. Note his final response – he went quiet and stared into space.
This is the freeze response in the fight, flight or freeze trio. He went inward as a defence mechanism and shut out the world around him.
How will this child trust his own feelings and beliefs in the future? How will he find the courage to speak up when he’s ridiculed and shamed, even by his own mother?
Next time he’s in a situation where he needs to voice a need or feeling he’ll keep quiet for fear of being mocked; he’ll start to doubt his own emotions and thoughts, believing he is wrong. The seed of the all too familiar fear of not being good enough is firmly planted. In addition he’ll be trying to cope with the trauma triggered by the original incident – being laughed at in what he came to know as a safe and secure environment, his classroom.
He now knows his mother won’t believe him and will even mock him, therefore he won’t talk about his feelings. He will doubt himself believing his mother was right, after all she is a grown up. The inner turmoil between what he feels to be true, what he believes and his fears of how others will react will start a chain of emotional and physical symptoms that will begin to surface over time:
- Anxiety, panic attacks, depression
- Hyperactivity, restlessness, irritability
- Mood swings, temper tantrums, nightmares
- Easily distracted, forgetful, isolated
- Stressed, low energy, withdrawn
- Avoidance behaviour, diminished curiosity
The above symptoms are only a few out of a long list. Dr Peter Levine and Maggie Kline explore in great depth the full impact of trauma in children in their book ‘Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes’. https://www.carladevereux.com/trauma-through-a-childs-eyes-by-peter-a-levine-maggie-kline/
If left unresolved, new symptoms will surface and in a few years that little boy’s mother or parents will wonder why their son has become depressed, anxious or has developed challenging behaviours. The incident on the London underground will be long forgotten.