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Childhood Trauma: Understanding Behavioral Challenges as Survival Instincts

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This is a blog post I never wanted to write. In light of the tidal wave of neuroscience research, I had hoped that by now the fields of education, mental health and juvenile justice would change the way they view and support children and teens exposed to trauma. That hasn’t happened yet. And while I’m hesitant to add to caregivers’ worries or to offend respected colleagues, I feel it’s important to explain why certain approaches to behavioral challenges may be harmful to vulnerable children.

Consider Janika, who was in the foster-care system and suffered from years of neglect. At age 8, she was diagnosed with a “conduct” disorder. She exploded at seemingly random times, hitting her school desk, throwing things or yelling. Her teachers described her attitude as defiant and uncooperative.

Her school team and psychologist tried to help Janika by offering positive reinforcement for good behaviors, but that made little difference. To help understand her behavioral patterns, they ordered a functional behavioral analysis (FBA), then, based on the results, devised a plan to calm her challenging behaviors.

The school arranged for a classroom aide, trained in behavioral management, to carry out the plan, which emphasized a consistent, specific approach, with certain behaviors triggering specific responses from the adults. When Janika displayed desired behaviors, the aide rewarded her with a smile, encouragement or another reinforcer. When she engaged in behaviors deemed “non-compliant” or “challenging,” the aide offered consequences that fell on a spectrum, ranging from ignoring the behavior to removing Janika from the classroom.

When Janika would start a behavior seen as challenging, the aide and teachers ignored the behavior. The plan didn’t allow any kind of “reinforcing response” — even a kind look or reassuring gesture. The assumption was that she needed to learn alternative, more appropriate ways to gain attention.

The result, though, was the opposite of what was intended. Instead of displaying fewer challenging behaviors, Janika showed far more. At first, the school psychologist assured the team that there was a good reason for the increase. She called it an “extinction burst,” a temporary increase in the magnitude of the targeted behavior. But then Janika began a new behavior: hitting her head on her desk so hard that she developed a bruise on her forehead.

Let’s examine Janika’s experience through the lens of neuroscience. Janika’s behaviors were stress reactions, subconscious attempts to soothe herself in a classroom full of cues of threat to her autonomic nervous system. Janika’s early trauma history had created implicit memories that were easily triggered by everyday sensations — sounds, smells or other sensations characteristic of a busy classroom. When she heard various noises or experienced unpredictable movements around her (such as people suddenly appearing without a verbal warning) her body went into a “fight-or-flight” response. When she perceived threat, her nervous system triggered her body to respond instinctively in ways to keep herself safe. The adults around her didn’t understand this. They treated her behaviors without considering how trauma leads to faulty threat perception, causing behaviors that appear to be maladaptive, but actually reflect survival instincts.

Janika’s behaviors were a sign that to feel safe, she needed more human engagement, not less. That’s why she began to hit her head: the behavior plan triggered her nervous system into a deeper fight-or-flight response.

Janika’s story could be any child’s. Children from any background can have stress reactions. Trauma and toxic stress are only some of the hidden causes. Trauma can come from multiple sources, such as childhood abuse or neglect, systemic racism, being in an accident, invasive or painful medical treatments, or being neurodivergent in a world that doesn’t understand brain wiring differences. The key is to understand how each child responds to a stressful situation, because each will respond differently.  For example, I’ve observed that children exposed to similar adverse experiences will have a range of reactions. It all depends on the child.

Far from being intentional, these children’s behaviors are reactions to complex brain-body connections, say neuroscientists such as Stephen Porges and Bruce Perry. Humans build emotional and behavioral control through experiences in relationships. When we choose to punish a child for behavioral challenges secondary to trauma, we are acting in conflict with what we know about brain development.

Instead, we need to integrate neuroscience principles into our approaches for traumatized children who display challenging behaviors. Too many children are suffering, and the popular strategy of simply trying to alter behaviors fails to acknowledge the importance of loving engagement with adults as the foundation of treatment.

When we acknowledge and turn to approaches validated by brain science, we will instill more compassion and hope in our beloved and misunderstood children. My book, Beyond Behaviors, explains how we can apply neuroscience and compassion when supporting behaviorally challenged children, including those who have suffered through trauma and loss, and who are indeed our most vulnerable children.

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