Helping the Child Who Dissociates

Eight-year-old Sherry (not her real name) suddenly appears to be frozen, staring off into space. She can stand like this for a minute or more. Her adoptive parents have learned that these frequent moments of dissociation are very common in children who have experienced significant trauma in their young lives.

Mental Health America provides an explanation of dissociation: “Dissociation is a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory and sense of identity. Dissociation seems to fall on a continuum of severity. Mild dissociation would be like daydreaming, getting ‘lost’ in a book, or when you are driving down a familiar stretch of road and realize that you do not remember the last several miles. A severe and more chronic form of dissociation is seen in the disorder Dissociative Identity Disorder, once called Multiple Personality Disorder, and other Dissociative Disorders.”

There are many points in between these two endpoints on the continuum of dissociation. We all dissociate multiple times in the course of a day. Dissociation is that moment in time when the brain checks out and gives itself a chance to take a deep breath and regroup. When someone has experienced significant trauma, one of the brain’s defenses is to allow the person to mentally “disappear” into a state of dissociation that goes beyond the normal quick mental checkouts.

Trauma-related dissociation occurs when a person mentally escapes for a longer period of time, often as a result of being triggered by something in the environment. It could also be a need to check out because the storehouse of traumatic memories could be a source of frequent triggering. That is what Sherry frequently does.

Cute girl daydreamer.

This mom has spent the last three years since adopting Sherry learning everything she could about the nature of trauma and its impact on a young child’s brain. She found that Sherry is extremely interested in what’s going on in her own brain. Because of that, she has provided Sherry with lots of information about typical brain growth, behaviors of each age, and what can help her brain grow stronger and healthier.

Recently I was privileged to be a part of a conversation in which Dr. Sandra Bloom provided some advice to Sherry’s adoptive mom.  Dr. Bloom is an internationally known trauma expert and author of many books on trauma, including Bearing Witness, Creating Sanctuary, Destroying Sanctuary, and Restoring Sanctuary.

Sherry’s mom asked Dr. Bloom how to handle Sherry she went into these deep dissociative states. “Talk to her about dissociation. Explain it. Then help her realize she can learn to have control over her dissociation. She can learn to recognize when it is happening, and she can decide to limit how long she ‘disappears.’ That gives her power over her brain and its processes,” Dr. Bloom replied.

A parent or caregiver of a child needs to recognize that it’s a long process to get to the place where a child feels safe enough in their relationship with that person to take in this kind of information about brain growth, brain development and the impact of trauma on their growing brain. It needs to be a gentle, slow process that respects how powerful trauma-related needs can be.

The ultimate goal in all this is to give a child clarity about why they think, feel, and behave and that none of their trauma-related thoughts, feelings or behaviors are their fault. As a result of this clarity, parents and caregivers can then give the child permission to claim the power they have over some of the trauma-related behaviors, like dissociation, that are normal but can be annoying and even debilitating.  

So much healing is possible in trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive relationships between parents and children!

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Have you noticed moments each day when you dissociate? Does it make sense that these are moments when your brain needs to take a deep breath?
  2. If you or a child you know has unresolved trauma, have you noticed when you are they go into a state of dissociation that is more significant than the average, every day dissociative moments?
  3. Is it helpful knowing that you can actually take more control over these dissociative moments by better understanding them and being able to use your mind to control your brain and that you can teach this to a child with unresolved trauma?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute