Long before we can speak, we are observers, receivers of the movements and intentions of others. Though unable to express ourselves in words, we still codify our experiences and have the capacity to recollect them vividly, all the more so once language develops.
A client helps me to remember that very young children exposed to traumatic experiences hold those memories in their bodies. Thus, her 2 1/2 year-old daughter, now separated from her father through an embattled custody trial and reams of evidence of her behavioral changes in his company, is suddenly showing signs of more extreme separation anxiety when she goes to school. The other day, the child suddenly threw up upon arriving at school, so upset at having to walk into her classroom. This behavior had previously only been seen when the child, as a 15-month-old infant, would have to go on overnight visits to the father, who lived out of state and came to NY periodically for these visits. Upon inquiry as to why the child was so intensely upset, she replied uttering the name of a little boy in her class. By all accounts, the little boy was an adorable angel, not a class bully. However, he had the misfortune of bearing the same name as the child’s father, which thus appeared to elicit the same response from the child: vomit. Once the school director intervened and clarified for the little girl that the boy with the father’s name was not “like the father”, the vomiting stopped and has not returned.
The reminder for me as a child specialist, coach, sometimes parenting coordinator and forensic custody evaluator, is that there are long-term effects of continuing to expose small children to toxic relationships and toxic environments. The trauma lives on in their bodies long after the abuses they’ve suffered cease. Trauma moves through the body. The movement that will heal this little girl will require the opportunity to find a medium of expression, language-based or otherwise, that allows her to process/digest her experiences and helps her distinguish/define a positive self-concept in the face of the toxic behaviors of caretakers.