Do you ever feel that life with your adopted or foster child feels like a pantomime where you never know who is going to turn up on stage next?

Your child may be playing contentedly and a moment later, he is a raging Hulk, or a spacey otherworldly creature, or a collapsed vagrant who “deserves” to be thrown out into the streets. He may, in fact, sequence through all three characters before returning to his ‘normal’ self. This behaviour can seem confusing, if not down-right perplexing, to caregivers. Particularly as the rational, logical child seems to have ‘disappeared’ completely and is unable to be reached.

Psychiatrist, Dr. Bruce Perry, explains that it is somewhat common for children with early trauma wounds to possess an arsenal of ‘characters.’ It all boils down to brain development.

His research into early child development tells us that humans begin life with an immature brain and body, lacking the capacity to regulate their behavioural states without the external mediation of their caretakers. Ideally, during the first 1000 days, attuned parents soothe their child’s dysregulated states, helping the child learn that safety, recover quickly from dysregulation, and communicate his physical and relational needs.

Without regulation from securely attached parents, small children must depend on their ability to alter consciousness when soothing is needed and the brain’s innate ‘fault lines’ for compartmentalizing overwhelming experiences. Psychotherapist, Dr. Janina Fisher, likes to use the term ‘fragmentation’ (psychological term: ‘structural dissociation’) to describe the latter experience.

So, how does one ‘fragment’? Dr. Fisher explains the main fault line for fragmentation available at birth is the right hemisphere/left hemisphere split. Though children are born with both hemispheres, they are right brain dominant for most of childhood. The slower developing left brain has spurts of growth around age two and again at adolescence, but the development of left brain dominance is only achieved very gradually.

If a child finds himself in an environment where he experiences danger and lacks comforting on a regular basis, this leads to a lack of meaning making for that particular experience (that is, the left brain is shutdown so information becomes stranded in the implicit memory and the mute right brain). Dr. Fisher explains that the lack of processing leads to trauma memories becoming organized as fragmented emotional and sensory traces without words. Accordingly, the two hemispheres of the brain are dissociated from each other.

She adds implicit memories can become triggered when a child is confronted with stimuli that is associated with the trauma. This can be something very subtle like a tone of voice or a sense of smell that triggers a full-blown experience or flashback. The feelings, emotions, reactions come up as parts.

“I assume [fragmentation] is always a factor in [children] with trauma histories,” Dr. Fisher says.

Who’s in the play?

In situations of early abuse or neglect, there is a conflict between the normal life self and structures that function for survival of the species. These include the animal defense responses: fight, flight, freeze, submit, attach. These structures, which manifest as thoughts, feelings and reactions, continuously move between the past and the present and operate in isolation of each other (that is, not as part of an integrated system).

In the figure (below), we can see how a person can either be in what Dr. Fisher calls the have ‘going on with normal life’ (left brain) part of the personality and ‘emotional’ or ‘trauma-related’ (right brain) parts.

© Dr. Janina Fisher

As an example, imagine this scenario. Your child may be at friend’s birthday acting as if everything is fine, joking and laughing with others and then suddenly he becomes disturbed, overly controlling or angry (threatening to hurt others or self), or vacantly staring into space without an obvious explanation. He may say later: “No one was paying attention to me,” which may be interpreted as lying or being manipulative. In actual fact, he is trying to make meaning of his reaction in the current (present) context, where there is no basis for the claim (or behaviour).

Without the ability to reflect or integrate experience (because the left-brain is normally offline when emotional parts are triggered), our children repeat the same reaction over-and-over again. This is called ‘unconscious repetition.’ And it is absolutely exhausting for caregivers—due to constantly walking on eggshells. Dr. Fisher confirms this is the dilemma for trauma treatment. The child is at the mercy of an internal world of emotional swings, alarming impulses, and unrecalled actions; without knowing ‘who’ is responsible (or when ‘they’ will turn up).

How to recognize the presence of parts in the body

The body is a whole shared by all parts. If we know how to look for them, the parts can be recognized through their body (somatic) or emotional/cognitive markers.

Somatic (body):

  • Fight part: Muscle tension in jaw, fists, arms and shoulders, still face, evil-looking eyes (enlarged pupils), haughty expression.
  • Flight part: Tension/movement impulses in legs and feet (this may include restless legs at night).
  • Attachment part: Face and body oriented toward source of help (and, naturally, the opposite—orienteering away—when attachment is too much), fawning behaviour.
  • Freeze part: Immobilization, ‘deer in headlights’ eyes.
  • Submit part: Low or slow voice tone, ‘hang dog’ look (postural collapse), aches and pains.

Emotional/cognitive:

  • Fight part: Sudden anger (or rage), mistrust, hypervigilance, violent dreams, beliefs related to “it’s not safe!” and the judgmental voice.
  • Flight part: Sudden feelings of being trapped and unsafe.
  • Attachment part: Sadness and anxiety, yearning for someone to come, beliefs related to helplessness, proximity seeking
  • Freeze part: Emotions of fear, terror, beliefs related to danger and annihilation, scary dreams, phobias.
  • Submit part: Shame, despair, depression, beliefs cantering around failure and hopelessness.

Examples include a child misperceiving danger when there is safety (misses the ‘safe’ cues); jumping to the conclusion that you are saying something negative before you have spoken; intense startle reactions of minor auditory/visual stimuli. These are often related to procedural learnings / flashbacks.

How else may parts manifest?

  • Being absent or ‘not there’: Physical presence often does not necessarily mean presence of the ‘going on with normal life’ self. This may impact the ability to recall conversations, focus attention, or be aware of contradictions (feelings or words).
  • Ongoing crises/conflicts/ups-and-downs: This is flight-related hyper vigilance (“it’s not safe to be happy, successful or relaxed”).
  • Attachment issues: The attach and fight/flight/freeze parts are in conflict (attachment is the source of either safety or danger). This is common with children diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder or Disorganized Attachment.
  • Blocked beliefs: The submit part says, “it was my fault,” the fight part says, “you should have done something;” the attach part says, “you don’t care.”
  • Lack of cause-and-effect: When our children fragment, it is hard for them to distinguish cause/effect, to feel responsible for behavior one does not remember, or to understand the impact on others.
  • Identity: Which part does the child identify with? As a ‘going on with normal life ‘self? An angry self? A fearful or needy self?

Dr. Fisher tells us that children impacted by trauma often have a ‘window of tolerance’ that is so small that it is going to take the tiniest emotion to bring up a part. A child may suddenly switch from a going on with life self to younger angry part or ashamed part. She says that caregivers must consider what is being communicated.

“One meaning could be that the feelings have become too intense or that whatever what said (or done) doesn’t feel safe. Sometimes it is a communication that a part is alarmed and is trying to take action to protect the child. To interpret these communications requires curiosity not confusion or frustration.”

Caregivers once again need to put their detective hat on and get curious.

  • What is triggering this part?
  • How old is the part? Where is it located in time? (All parts are ‘frozen in time.’)
  • What is the part remembering?

Be mindful, however, of ‘blending.’ This is a term used by Dr. Richard Schwartz, creator of Family Systems Therapy. Blending occurs when parts intrude on the ‘going on with normal life’ self. Have you heard your child when triggered say: “this is who I am!” or “I am a piece of shit!”? Dr. Schwartz warns that caregivers need to talk to their child without using the words “you” (“you sound scared”). Instead, reframe it as “a part of you sounds scared…what is it worried about…what does it need right now to feel safer…?”

Dr. Fisher adds that caregivers should be aware of switching and hijacking:

  • Switching: This is a distancing technique. Confronted with overwhelm, a child may transition from one part to the next unconsciously and automatically, as the costume of one player is seamlessly exchanged for that of the next. For example, ‘going on with life’ self to anxious, then threatening, then self-pity, then disoriented, and returning to ‘going on with life’ self (as if nothing has happened). Switching equals escape from feelings. If a child switches into dissociation, then no part owns the feelings.
  • Hijacking: This is when caregiver’s notice a sudden change—it may be raging, running away, or sabotage. This is often a protector part that steps in because it has become unsafe. Have you noticed that angry or submit parts turn up at your child’s therapy?

Note: After any incident where a “part” may have come to the rescue, avoid talking with your child until they have returned to their window of tolerance. This means that you are more likely to communicate with the left-brain ‘going on with life’ self. (For an indication of timing, adrenalin typically takes one hour to leave the body.)

© Felicia Stewart, 2019