I talk frequently about our children and their brains, how a hurting child’s brain is less developed than a child who’s had a typical upbringing (love and consistency). I talk about their inability to think logically, and that’s why consequences and reward systems don’t work. However, none of this means that a child who’s been neglected, abused, and traumatized isn’t smart. I think all of this can be misconstrued and parents can assume their children aren’t intelligent, when that’s very far from the truth.
When Dr. Bruce Perry talks about a traumatized child’s brain being smaller, it means certain areas haven’t developed fully. It doesn’t mean the processing areas aren’t functioning, it means the areas that control the social and emotional haven’t developed fully. A hurting child is aware of what’s happening around them, they are able to manipulate, they can give you directions and street names, but solving A=B issues is very difficult, even impossible for some, hence the logical consequences don’t compute.
In the book Little Bee, two girls have escaped an England prison, where they’d been held as illegal immigrants. Little Bee says to Yevette, “You aren’t dumb, Yevette. All of us who have got this far, all of us who have survived – how can we be dumb? Dumb could not come this far.” It’s so true, and something that parents need to understand about their hurting kids, they aren’t lacking intelligence, it only looks different.
Bryan Post writes, “In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, researcher Mihaly implies it’s no mystery that individuals of genius nature are in fact genius because most have all experienced life-altering trauma. In essence, he explains that in environments of neglect and abuse the child does not receive an equivalent balance of cognitive/social/emotional experience, therefore a neurologic compensation occurs. Whereby what the brain does not get emotionally, it compensates for cognitively, thus a very intelligent child. The catch, though the child may be cognitively advanced perhaps even brilliant, rarely can this be accessed because of the constant emotional hijacking which occurs when the trauma brain gets triggered and takes over.”
For those who don’t enjoy reading about brain development, essentially what Mihaly said is that while our children weren’t developing in the social/emotional area of their brain, the cognitive area had adequate time to mature.
My daughter, Payton, is just one example of this. She had extreme difficulty with controlling behaviors she knew were unacceptable, she wasn’t able to figure out A=B for consequences. [If you do A (behavior) then B (consequence) happens.] Yet, when I spelled out “ice cream” when she was two, she knew what I was spelling, and she could give me directions to the grocery store. She was reading books at age four, and I could go on and on with her knowledge of where she was and how things worked. This happens so many times with kids who’ve been neglected, abused, and traumatized.
Dr. Bruce Perry has also said, “If you have relational poverty you walk around as a dysregulated person. You’re more vulnerable to trauma…and it’s harder to learn new things.” Perry describes the one who is in relational poverty as a high risk child or one who’s in foster care. Also, just because a child has entered your home or been there for a few months, it doesn’t mean they’re no longer in relational poverty. It takes time for relationships to develop, especially when a child has learned no one can be trusted.
This is also explained well by Joseph LeDoux, “In times of stress, our thinking becomes confused and distorted and our short term memory is suppressed.”
Hurting kids are constantly under stress until they have made significant attachments, even while they’re making attachments they will slip back into a stressed state.
On the topic of stress affecting our memory, even I can attest to this. I walked into a Starbucks earlier this week and stood at the counter, it was the first time I’d been at this particular store, but I had ordered this particular drink dozens of times, yet I froze. What was it that I order every time? See, it happens to all of us…I think.
So, there’s a good chance your child is intelligent, it just may be hiding underneath a lot of pain, or you may see it and wonder how your child can be so smart, yet not obey simple rules. I hope this gives you some insight into your child and what’s going on inside of them.
These links may be helpful in learning more about a child who’s been neglected, abused, and traumatized:
detecting attachment issues
why consequences and rewards don’t work
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