How does trauma affect us?
Yes, we feel it in our brains – we get scared, frustrated, and angry – often for reasons we don’t fully understand.
But even if our brains have managed to cover up the trauma; to paper a veneer over it so everything seems fine, that doesn’t mean everything actually is fine – because as our guest in this episode, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk says: The Body Keeps The Score.
What he means is that the effects of the trauma you’ve experienced don’t just go away, and can’t just be papered over. Your body will still hold the evidence in tension, headaches, irritability (of minds and bowels), insomnia…and all of this may come out when your child does something you wish they wouldn’t.
Perhaps it’s something your parent always used to resent doing, and made it super clear to you every time they did it for you.
Perhaps it was something you did as a child and were punished for doing (maybe you were even hit for it…your body is literally remembering this trauma when your child reproduces the behavior).
Lack of manners, talking back, making a mess, not doing as you were told, being silly…even if logically you now know that these are relatively small things, when your child does them it brings back your body’s memories of what happened to you.
Dr. van der Kolk helps us to understand more about how this shows up for us. Sometimes understanding can be really helpful. But sometimes you also need new tools, and support as you learn them, and accountability.
If you’re struggling with your reactions to your child’s difficult behavior – whether you’re going into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode, the Taming Your Triggers workshop can help. Registration is open starting Saturday July 31 through midnight Pacific on Wednesday August 11. I’d really love to work with you!
Dr. van der Kolk will host a four-week program for experts and those who treat people who have experienced trauma in October and November 2021 where he synthesizes history, neurology, and trauma research to deepen our understanding of trauma and trauma treatment. Click here for more information.
Jump to highlights:
- (01:00) Introducing Dr. van der Kolk
- (01:58) Invitation to the Taming Your Triggers Workshop
- (02:56) A note on some technical difficulties we had while recording this episode
- (03:14) People often want easy answers: Talking about why we feel like we need pills and alcohol to deal with trauma and not make use of other methods which seem more beneficial
- (08:16) “We become who we are based on the experiences we had and these early experiences really set your expectations”
- (11:53) Dr. van der Kolk’s ongoing research on touch and trauma that looks into the virtually unstudied field of touch
- (14:42) To effectively deal with trauma, people need to discover who they are and find the words for their internal experiences
- (16:10) On mindfulness and yoga: the physical focus on movement in yoga may open up some space for mindfulness
- (20:45) Rolfing : opening up the body so that it is released from the configuration it adopted to deal with trauma
- (23:07) The importance of words and finding somebody who can helps you to find words as cautiously as they can, without inflicting too much of their own value system on you
- (25:31) Dr. van der Kolk’s current agenda for kids to be taught to have a language for their internal experience
- (28:27) Two of the most important scientifically proven predictors of adult function
- (31:26) Dr. van der Kolk talks about Developmental Trauma Disorder
- (38:31) The power of peer and community support in healing trauma
- (41:32) Wrapping up
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
- My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies
- No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology Is Catching Up to Buddhism
- Taming Your Triggers Workshop
Click here to read the full transcript
Jen Lumanlan 00:02
Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting.
Jen Lumanlan 00:28
If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released, and get a FREE guide called 13 Reasons Why Your Child Isn’t Listening To You and What To Do About Each One, just head on over to YourParentingMojo.com/SUBSCRIBE. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the free Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you’ll join us
Jen Lumanlan 01:00
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today we’re here with a guest who is a luminary in his field of trauma psychology, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. Dr. van der Kolk has been at the forefront of translating emerging findings from neuroscience and attachment research, development and study a range of treatments for traumatic stress in children and adults for decades now. He began by studying post traumatic stress disorder in veterans and has gone on to study it and other adults as well as how trauma affects children. He’s studied treatments to help people improve their functioning in the world by looking beyond symptoms to understanding the causes of their behavior that’s generating their problems. And then not just shifting their cognitive understanding of the problems and the causes, but also showing them how to change their physical experience of their lives. Dr. van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps The Score is required reading for anyone who wants to begin understanding that trauma isn’t just something we experience in our brains, but something that lives in us.
Jen Lumanlan 01:58
If what you hear in today’s interview resonates with you and you see how the trauma that you’ve experienced in your life is impacting your relationship with your children today, I invite you to join my Taming Your Triggers workshop, which is open for registration from Sunday, August 1st through Wednesday, August 11th. It’s a 10-week course where you learn the real sources of your triggered feelings which either lie in the kinds of Big T traumatic experiences that we’ll discuss here today or potentially in not having your needs seen and met by your parents. You’ll get all the support you need in our private, non-Facebook community. And you can sign up to get an Accountabuddy to bounce ideas off as you’re learning them, and to hold you gently accountable for doing the work when you might otherwise just let it fall by the wayside because it’s difficult or maybe even threatening to the stories that your overactive left brain has told you about your experiences for all these years. You can go to YourParentingMojo.com/TamingYourTriggers to learn more about the course and sign up.
Jen Lumanlan 02:56
I also wanted to mention that we had some technical challenges during this interview. So you may notice a little bit of choppiness as we had to remove some sections because they weren’t understandable. But even so there’s such an incredible amount of value in what Dr. van der Kolk was saying that I know you’re going to get something useful out of it. So here we go.
Jen Lumanlan 03:14
I was curious to hear your interview with Krista Tippett and on being which a number of people have recommended as a really stellar interview. And you had talked about how people in other cultures have things like dancing and moving and singing really integrated into their cultures and religions. And I’ve been to church since I was a child, but there was no there was no dancing, there’s no moving the Church of England, and it also reminded me of Resmaa Menakem’s book, my Grandmother’s Hands where he describes people who were enslaved, using exactly these practices to continue their culture and heal their trauma. Yeah, but we just kind of stuff it down and then it comes back to bite us later. And we find that we need the pills and that we need the the alcohol, or it feels like we need that. What’s what happened in our culture, do you think to make us, sort of head down in that direction instead of these other practices that seem like they’re much more beneficial?
Bessel van der Kolk 04:08
Well, of course, it depends on the culture, we live in and like, let’s say you would live in Berkeley, California would not be unusual to go to your yoga studio. In other parts of the country, you are a traitor to your religion, if yoga or your environments in among the people I hang out with having a yoga practice and meditation practice would be or even martial arts practice would be very common. But that’s a small segment of the population of course. You know, people like easy answers. And, and that’s true all over the world. Let me give an example. A few years ago, there was this huge tsunami in in the Indian Ocean and a group from my clinic, went down to Sri Lanka to do first aid. And they called me for the beach in Sri Lanka and said, Bessel, they have everything here that they need to recover. They are moving together, they are singing together, they have rituals. It’s beautiful. But down the street, Pfizer pharmaceuticals has come with pills. And they all the Sri Lankan people are lining up behind it, the Pfizer truck to get the pill to make the pain go away. And I think that’s always, around the world, the issue is is the community strong enough to induce you to share your pain communally, Or do you go off drinking or drugging by yourself? I think that’s, you know, you see that all over the world in some ways, but in other parts of the world, the other things are more easily accessible.
Jen Lumanlan 05:58
Yeah, and I think it might have been in the On Being episode or another interview that I heard from you where you were talking about how you helped out in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, I think I think it was, if I’m remembering that correctly. Yeah. And that I that, again, people were sort of taking charge of what needed to be done and they had a sense of autonomy over the start of the repair work. And then FEMA arrives, and and completely takes over the whole thing and, and says that you’re going to do it, how we’re going to do it and stop doing all these things you’ve been doing. And it just seems as though we sort of impose these ways on other people a lot of the time as well.
Bessel van der Kolk 06:35
Yeah, of course, American society has these inborn things about top down versus individualistic enterprises. But, you know, you can say all kinds of things are inaccessible. But America is still the land of innovation. Somehow, our culture is still off, it’s okay to start something new and start to try out new things. And you see things happen all the time. So this is tension between. But we don’t have a government that really for us, for the people, but at least we still have a culture where there’s a relative amount of possibility for people to develop alternative structures.
Jen Lumanlan 07:15
Yeah. So I’d love to sort of go back a little bit, as it were into your history of working with people who’ve experienced trauma. And I know that you were really struck by the early, early animal research where researchers not including you, were giving painful electric shocks to dogs while they were trapped in cages. And then they would open the cage doors, and the dogs who had been shocked would just kind of sit there whimpering. And I think this has obvious parallels to situations like domestic abuse, where we might say, Well, why doesn’t the patient the person just leave. But I’m also interested in the implications of this for people who are not in the thick of the trauma right now that it has happened to them in the past something like, you know, divorce and bullying and things that happened in our childhood, and that this has profoundly shifted the ways that we show up in our relationships with our children today. And I think it’s so tempting to just say, well, you’re not in that hurtful situation anymore, that you were in when you were a child, why don’t you just do it differently? Why, why doesn’t that work?
Bessel van der Kolk 08:16
Because you still are in a situation, because we become who we are, on the basis of the experiences we have had. And the experiences that we have had in our brain mind, predicts how things will be in the future. So if you’re experienced as a kid is that the people who are supposed to take care of you, regularly humiliate you, put you down and make you feel terrible about yourself, that becomes your map of the world. And later on, you may meet somebody who puts you down and humiliate you, you go like, wow, this person is terrible person, but I feel at home. You may feel more comfortable in his in his own bizarre way with that person who does nasty things to you, does somebody who’s actually nice to you. That’s, so these early experiences really set your expectations as set your reward system of your brain. So that certain things become pleasurable, for other people may not be pleasurable, or they may feel terrible for other people feel terrific. And it’s not a conscious decision because these things get laid down in the nether regions of your brain.
Jen Lumanlan 09:33
Yeah, and it I think it has a lot of connections obviously to attachment theory and I’ve been digging into a lot of reading on that lately and how babies will even seek out attachment they’ll they’ll be motivated to connect with a parent even if the parent is abusive towards the child. So it’s
Bessel van der Kolk 09:54
…we’re we’re very communal creatures. For me, by far the most interesting course at the college was about Harlow and his monkeys. And it turns out that now, several of my closest friends, were working for Harlow at the same time that I was studying Harlow. And, you know, seeing how we as human beings really are little monkeys with a gigantic frontal lobe. And I always love to look at monkeys because they chase each other, and they groom, each other, they fight they do things very much like human beings. And what Harlow found is that monkeys need to be attached. And humans need to be attached. There’s not like an option… COVID is not like, oh, let’s just be by ourselves for a year and not connect with other people. No, that is who we are. We are defined by our context, defined by people who know us, people don’t know us, the people who recognize us to make people may feel special. That’s who we are. Most of our brain is for social enterprise.
Jen Lumanlan 11:12
Yeah, so there’s severe problems there where we can’t do that. And just for anyone who’s listening, who is not familiar with the Harlow’s experiment, this is where he’s creating these monkeys made out of wire that I mean, some of them would puff air at the baby every time the baby tried to hug up to it. And some of them had spikes on. Some of them were just a Terrycloth over a piece of wire and you see these pitiful pictures of baby monkeys hugging on for dear life.
Bessel van der Kolk 11:34
There is clue to the mothers hugging the Terrycloth. The mothers who feed them, which is really interesting. Touching, actually just, you’re doing research right now with touch and trauma. Being touched being held, is very much at the core of who we are here.
Jen Lumanlan 11:53
Oh, can you tell me some more about that? What are you looking at in that research?
Bessel van der Kolk 11:56
Are we looking at the a lot of challenges, people are terrified of touch, don’t feel comfortable with touch, or need touch all the time, or don’t get comfort from touch. So there’s a real altered relationship to your bodily systems. And you know, because we have been so drugs or yakking in our field, we haven’t paid attention to that. And for me, it’s interesting that there have been Nobel prizes figuring out how vision works, and how audition works and how smell works, and some people left out touch. And touch has been virtually not studied, even though the first thing we do when we’re distressed is to hold on to each other. And often when something terrible happens, we don’t even have words, but just feeling somebody hope even better is bigger and stronger to you or to hold you said it will be okay. It’s very powerful. And people who are traumatized, have terrific difficulties taking in the comfort of touch, living with it, and I think just a dimension that we need to pay much more attention to.
Jen Lumanlan 13:11
Yeah, yeah, I agree. And I think it’s partly to do with the body brain split that we enforce through various aspects of our culture where…
Bessel van der Kolk 13:19
That’s culture. It’s who we are.
Jen Lumanlan 13:20
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, we privilege everything that happens in the brain is rational and better than anything else that’s happening elsewhere in the body. And yeah, so I was thinking then about some of the ways that people who maybe don’t have access to therapy can do work on on some of the trauma that they’ve experienced. So it seems as though touch could be a really important part of that. Is that right?
Bessel van der Kolk 13:43
Oh, yeah, but the other thing is becoming increasingly clear to me is so I went to medical school, and so good psychiatry school. And they you think that, okay, this is the avenue for mental health, you meet social workers, occupational therapists, who find a slightly different avenue to mental health. And then you realize, after well, that all of us just do a very small part of the overall thing. And maybe the director of your choir, or maybe your music teacher, or maybe your physical phys ed instructor, or your, your boxing coach, maybe as useful for you as a traumatized person, as a therapist, as a therapist, just a small part of the whole large spectrum of issues that get affected by trauma.
Jen Lumanlan 14:35
Yeah, so so talking is can be helpful, but there are a whole lot of other things that are useful too.
Bessel van der Kolk 14:42
You know, and for a while, I really sort of poo pooed words, because I always thought that everybody talked in great depth to their patients. And then I started to do a lot of supervision, particularly past year and we had a lot of people mistake advice-giving and I’m wagging their fingers for therapy, which is very different. I had been very unimpressed with the art of really listening and really helping people to find words for their internal experience doesn’t seem to be as central to the field as it was when I grew up. So I’m so really going back into, no people need to find words for themselves, people need to know who they are, they need to discover who they are, and find words for the internal experience, in the same way that when you have a baby, a very important part of having a baby is to help the baby to talk and find words for things outside of themselves and things inside of themselves. But when you ‘re traumatized you oftentimes have words for the inner experience, and try to say what it is as safe as going on and make a verbal connection with your inner world is actually quite important. Mm hmm.
Jen Lumanlan 16:00
Yeah. And you also look a lot at tools like mindfulness and yoga as well. And you’ve done research on the effectiveness of those in helping people who are traumatized. Can you tell us about that?
Bessel van der Kolk 16:10
Well, the mindfulness research was really done by a very curious marriage of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, with a bunch of neuro scientists, who really met each other Richie Davidson and Jon Kabat Zinn, and people like that, and so fell in love with each other. And it set up this whole thing of the Mind & Life Institute, where people really looked at what the inner experience feels like. It’s very productive, beautiful work was done. And we got a much deeper understanding about what self is, and the relationship to yourself is and how it’s laid down in your brain, and how disturbed it is by trauma. But we also discovered that, so we know that mindfulness is, in order to have a mind you need to be mindful, in order to be in control of yourself, you need to actually know where your mind is, what you might want, etc, etc. But, but we also discovered is if you’re traumatized, you have all these sensations in your body, that can be extremely uncomfortable. For many times, as people doing meditation is very scary, to just allow the sensation in your body to come out. They may be very disturbing. And what is very striking about many times is people who I’ve known and still know, is that they love to turn on the television, they love to blast music, and they love to have love activities, anything to not have to experience that internal self. And so, meditation sounds so wonderful. But in fact, when you’re traumatized, it’s a very hard thing to do. And Yoga is easier. Because a yoga instead of focusing on, on, on nothingness inside, you focus on getting the back to touch your toe with to twist yourself, in particular angle, you activate the same circuits but yet, you know, you actually are able to focus more your body and be less subject to all kind of unpleasant old stuff coming up and coming back to haunt you.
Jen Lumanlan 18:25
Yeah, so it’s almost like they work in parallel, then that, that the physical focus on the movement in the yoga may open up some space for the mindfulness as well.
Bessel van der Kolk 18:33
Jen Lumanlan 18:34
Yeah. And I know that, in one of your papers use you cite a number of body based practices like focusing and sensory awareness and Feldenkrais ‘s and hakomi, and there’s so many of these body based practices and and I wanted to quote what you said, you said, the nature and effects of these practices are not easily articulated. And their meanings are not easily captured in the dominant intellectual categories, which I think is your way of saying essentially what I found, which is that there’s essentially no academic research on these techniques beyond the mindfulness and the yoga, and I think…
Bessel van der Kolk 19:05
There is some.
Jen Lumanlan 19:06
Bessel van der Kolk 19:07
I can tell you all the names of all three people who actually…
Jen Lumanlan 19:10
Yes, please do, because I would love to read all three papers. So how do we move forward with this? I mean, I know that academic research is important when you’re looking at population level recommendations, because we want to make sure we’re spending our time and our money effectively. But if we’re an individual, and we’re looking to understand what could one of these practices help me, is there a way that we can do that based on the three people who are doing research on this arena?
Bessel van der Kolk 19:36
Well, you know, we don’t need to do research on everything, you know, people live without research on but music is most pleasing, or you don’t necessarily need to go to academic route. But clinical practices always are ahead of academic investigations and so a really good clinician knows much more than anybody in laboratory does, because it takes much longer for laboratories to catch up with clinical complexities. And so like recently, it was a conference at Harvard where they talked about various stuff and I sat there and I said, Yeah, I studied that back in 1989. It started back in 1991. And somehow, it didn’t move. You keep rediscovering all the old stuff again. And then the old poppy discovery, like I did is that stuff is held in the body, you need to work with the body. But once it goes to mainstream academia, they need to rediscover all this old stuff again.
Jen Lumanlan 20:45
Yeah. But how can we know that even the thing we’re doing is safe? I mean, I know you’ve talked about Rolfing. And I didn’t know what that was…
Bessel van der Kolk 20:53
What I know about Rolfing is that our bodies gets configured along the lines of what’s required for them. So if you’re a little kid a need to be really tough, you get a real tough body, you walk around like this stuffed creature. And if you think that the only way I’m going to survive is by being in compliance, and never letting people know how angry I, you see, you get a configuration of a mouse. And you walk through the world like, like, please don’t hit me, don’t hit me. And so these things get actually configured in your body and as Ida Rolf taught us and you know, it’s weird for me when I was a medical student, but then later you discover that’s true. And then what Rolfing does is actually opens up the set patterns of your fascia, your muscles, so you don’t get trapped in a body that continues to live out, the fear, the terror, etc, etc. Very solid good thinking.
Jen Lumanlan 21:53
Okay. All right. So I wonder if we can go back to some of what you said earlier about your the idea of what the self is and how that’s laid down in early childhood through things like attachment relationships. And I think that also connects with things that you would learn from Dr. Elvin Semrad, you talked about in the book about how he wants us to connect, to be honest with ourselves and connect with the reality of our lives. And I’m curious about your thoughts on that. We have done some digging on that topic and talked with Dr. Chris Niebauer about his book No Self No Problem, which is, the basic premise is that there’s kind of no reality that we can know that, yes, we can experience this moment. But then our left brain is making up a story about what actually happened to fit within our broader understanding and our existing memories. And what we actually end up sort of encoding into our memory can have very, very little basis the thing that actually happened. And so how can we fit those two ideas together, this idea of I have ideas about where I’ve come from where I’ve been, and what that means for me right now. And also that, essentially, our left brains are very overactive, and that we can’t necessarily believe very much what they tell us.
Bessel van der Kolk 23:05
I think it’s all true. But we are meaning making creatures. And, you know, we’d like to say is that every tribe in the world probably has had an explanation of why the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. And most explanations were wrong but if you and I agree on our meaning making system on whatever the moongod is makes advice, then we are good friends. And so it doesn’t really matter whether it’s reality, it’s the question is whether we create the same meaning universe, of course, that’s happening in America more and more where just large swathes of people who have no idea what the other person is talking about. And that is that’s really confronting us right now. But But when you’re traumatized, things are oftentimes so confusing, and so scary, and so unclear who is causing what, that your head is in a great muddle. And then finding a way of making meaning for yourself, is enormously helpful and that’s really what therapy is about is that, let me see what’s happened to this kid and as you get in this whole issue of self blame and self hatred, I feel this must have happened to me because I was a bad person. And people treat me like a bad person anyway. So you get this very deep sense of being damaged goods and being wrong. But, but a very important way of getting out of that is to really hear yourself say it and to find these words, and find the words to care for yourself, and go like, wow, oh, that’s how I think about myself. I think myself, myself is this piece of shit, that’s good for nothing. Oh, that’s why I kept going to that bar where people did terrible things to me, because I really don’t have a sense of I deserve anything better. Hmm, interesting. I didn’t know that about myself. So words are still important. And finding somebody who helps you to find words as cautiously as they can, without inflicting too much of their own value system on you, is quite important. But our value systems come in there anyway. It’s important to be kind and generous, not only with other people is yourself. It’s important to be still it’s important to empty arguments and stuff like that.
Bessel van der Kolk 25:31
But, but you asked me another question that I’d like to say something. And there’s how do we how do we change the culture? My agenda these days more than anything else, is, and I’ve considered myself a preacher man, is to see if we can get a policy, that in every classroom in America, from K to 12, kids are being taught every week, about four hours reading, writing, arithmetic, and self regulation, had it because I taught to experience themselves, to feel themselves to have a language for themselves, to have a language for the internal experience, to have a language for what happens in their brain, and language that happens to their bodies. And that kids are being taught that when you become really nervous, the way you breathe, really will help you to calm yourself down. When you feel really upset. Tapping certain acupressure points in your body may help you to refocus. Maybe when you get really upset, or you run around the block, and really expand love energy, you may feel safer, so that all of us get taught that regulating yourself and owning yourself is a core part of existence, as that’s worthy of one of the four core things that you learn as you grow up.
Jen Lumanlan 26:48
Won’t that be amazing. Yeah, and not just to teach it from the perspective of well, you need to learn this, as soon as you said self regulate, my mind immediately went to well, yes, because that makes it easier for the teachers to sort of keep a classroom of 30 kids under control. But what you’re really talking about here is that this is a fundamental skill throughout life and if we’re just learning these skills in adulthood, then you know, imagine how our lives could have been different if we had understood from an early age, what capacities we have ourselves to regulate ourselves, that just because somebody says something that we find distressing doesn’t mean that we have to feel anger, if we if we’re we can choose a different response. We can…
Bessel van der Kolk 27:32
We can feel the anger and then to say, I do have a choice about what to do with the anger.
Jen Lumanlan 27:37
Bessel van der Kolk 27:39
That’s a very important thing.
Bessel van der Kolk 27:40
Bessel van der Kolk 27:40
That’s the Four 4. The Fourth R is yes, people will do things as they’ll piss me off. And so when I feel that impulse, oh, I feel impulse to plant my fist in their face right now. How interesting. I think I’ll probably not do that instead I’ll just sort of check my cell phone or so you really build up an internal capacity to really notice your emotions, notice senstations, and take care of them. And not have them sort of run with you.
Jen Lumanlan 28:15
Yeah. And there’s, there’s nothing like that in our culture right now at all anywhere, is there? Yeah, I mean, that that’s why parents are here listening to this right now so that they can start to do this work and break the cycle and introduce these ideas to their children.
Bessel van der Kolk 28:25
At the same time the young parents, who I see in my surroundings, which aren’t all that many and not representative, are extraordinarily good in doing their [inaudible]. How do you find language for their feelings, they talk with their kids. The greatest predictor of adult function, the two most important predictive adult function that I know of, as be scientifically study is one daily family meals, where people talk to each other and do not look at screens, and being evolved to team sports, where you learn to pass the ball to each other and to be part of a larger group. These are a very powerful predictors of good adult functioning actually. Yeah. So I think that’s something that’s happening to our culture, possibly, I don’t know how most people live, but sitting down at a table and talking together. Tell me quick, just how was your day? What is it like? Oh, so and so got made at me. What’s it like for you how did you deal with it. And so really talk about your experiences as a, as a group of people who have something to say, and learn to hear that whatever your opinion, experiences is important to you. And so find a language for yourself is enormously important. I’ve been very clear about mealtimes and that we sit together. Now in some Christian families people may sing by their meals. At probably very useful singing together is a beautiful thing for people to do, or Jewish families sing together. Secular families don’t have a lot of songs to sing but [inaudible] songs or something.
Jen Lumanlan 30:16
We find other things. Yes, in our house, we read Black Lives Matter or Black History Flashcards and learn about that. So you have talked a lot about how children who have grown up in abusive environments perceive almost any situation as a trigger. And that reminds them of the danger that they may have faced and may even continue to face. But we tend to apply these diagnostic labels like conduct disorder, and ADHD and opposition…
Bessel van der Kolk 30:46
Jen Lumanlan 30:47
Jen Lumanlan 30:48
[inaudible] savvy. I don’t live by those labels.
Jen Lumanlan 30:51
No, but we, in society wide, tend to do those things. And yeah, Dr. Ross Green has said that Oppositional Defiant Disorder is code for this kid hates my guts. And so I know that you have, you have tried to have what you’ve called developmental trauma disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual a few years ago, and unfortunately, it didn’t happen. I’m wondering if you can tell us a bit more about the kinds of trauma that lead to what you would have called a Developmental Trauma Disorder in the DSM.
Bessel van der Kolk 31:25
The definition developed with [inaudible] was that terrible things happen to you, you get beaten up or molested, or you’re with this violence in the context of an environment there were with with caregivers who are not dedicated to making you feel safe. The attachment system meets the trauma system. And so the worst thing that can happen to a person happens all the time, is if your own parents are the source of your misery. Your own parents beat you up. Your own parents molest you. That as a kid, you have nowhere to go, because we are wired to turn to our parents to make us feel safe. So when that system gets disturbed, you get Development Trauma Disorder, or all this huge list of things in the DSM that all have no scientific validity or opposition by colleagues or [inaudible]. These are all all the results of growing up unsafe and terrified. And of course, if you adopt kids, that gets more complicated, because you may be a very thoughtful and non-traumatized person yourself, who’s quite tolerant and attune to the needs of that kid. But if you have been adopted you, the kid may have organic things that are missing in terms of their capacity to take in your kindness and your warmth. And you may feel very frustrated, trying to do well by these kids, and they don’t really respond to you. Because once you get traumatized as the kid it becomes really difficult to reset and rewire their brain to really take in the milk of you the pleasure of the milk of human kindness.
Jen Lumanlan 33:24
Okay, and so I think that part of the reason that you were trying to get this into the DSM was that there’s a link between being able to diagnose something effectively and being able to treat it effectively. So what kind of problems does…
Bessel van der Kolk 33:39
That’s why we don’t like nonsense diagnosis like [inaudible] disorder because if you had something wrong with you, I’m a doctor, you know. And if I have a cough and a blood coming out or something, I want you to figure out what is wrong with me, and not give you the diagnosis, that the insurance company will pay me for it to give to you. And in that regard, mental health is completely has sold his soul to a system that is determined by how much you get reimbursed by insurance companies, rather than finding out what does this particular person need.
Jen Lumanlan 34:13
Yeah. Yeah, it’s it’s very unfortunate, for sure. And I’m wondering also the extent to which this comes into play for children, who maybe haven’t been sort of horrifically traumatized but maybe they went through a pattern of just having their needs were not met. And I’m so I’m sort of thinking of Dr. Alice Miller’s work where she talks about children who were just kind of habitually didn’t have needs met in childhood and and is it the case that that can sort of stack up over time and form a kind of trauma in children as well.
Bessel van der Kolk 34:54
It’s, I would say, it forms better enough adaptation. Because you have this need to feel attached. We really are fundamentally unable to cut off all ties with everybody. And so, but you live in scary abusive surroundings, you adjust yourself to try to live with whatever is going on, even if it’s at the expense of yourself. And you can say, Oh, my parents are wonderful people, they beat me up from time to time, because I’m a rotten kid. Or I deserve it, I’m really fundamentally evil. And so it’s okay to do stuff for me or so people find ways of accommodating to this reality. And it’s very difficult for them to say, No, I’m not being honored, I’m not being taken seriously. This is not love, and to go, and to leave a situation very, very difficult for people to do.
Jen Lumanlan 35:59
Yeah, and essentially probably impossible for children, right, even even if they may not even have the language to say my needs are not being met. It’s because the the parent is such an omniscient, omnipotent person, if the parent is not giving me what I need, it must be my fault, and what the problem must be me.
Bessel van der Kolk 36:15
You don’t know what your needs are.
Jen Lumanlan 36:16
Bessel van der Kolk 36:17
You just know that you feel terrible.
Jen Lumanlan 36:20
And so when we’re thinking about sort of how we think about disease in a way, and mental health and disease, you talk about how the Brain Disease Model really overlooks what you say are Four Fundamental Truths. And, and I was super surprised in reading it. And of course, I’m much less surprised now in in, in talking with you that three of these four are related to connections with other people. And the one that isn’t, is about regulating our own physiology. And we’ve talked about that quite a lot in the podcast. But the other thing is, I’m paraphrasing, are things that are, while relationships destroy each other and people, they also heal each other, that language helps us to achieve this healing through a sense of common meaning, and that we can change social conditions so that people can feel safe and thrive. And it seems to me as though it’s not just the Brain Disease Model that’s flawed, but it’s the problem is this whole idea of you have a problem, and you need to work on fixing it. This thought. Do you agree with that perspective?
Bessel van der Kolk 37:17
Well, I wrote this so obviously I do. So we are, we are monkeys, you know, we are meant to be with other people, our brain is to be with other people, our language is to be communicated to other people, that’s who we are. And so people can do miracles with each other, you know, particularly, when you’re more open for that earlier in your life. But if you just have the right kindergarten teacher, you can get a sense of this is what it feels like when somebody pays attention to you. Or if you’re lucky enough, if your first boyfriend, your first girlfriend, when you’re 16, 17, 18 is a person who really thinks that you’re wonderful, with whom you have a great relationship, then it can sort of undo a lot of earlier damage. Also, the opposite is true also, where you can be a fairly well put together person. And then later on, you can live in a extremely hostile work environment and it can destroy a lot of these earlier patterns. Although the patterns laid down earliest in your life are most powerful.
Jen Lumanlan 38:31
Yeah, and, and so and i think that I was also drawn to an exercise in your book where you there were a couple of Marias who had anecdotes were described in your book. And one of them you guided through an exercise where people who were in a group with her did a roleplay, where they took on the roles of people who had traumatized her so that she could experience a different outcome of an interaction that they were role playing. And and I read Stacy Haynes’s book on somatic experiencing and I realized when she described a very similar anecdote that that’s essentially what you were doing. And I was talking with a friend about this. And she observed how amazing it would be if we can actually do this kind of healing work for each other out in the community instead of potentially needing so many therapists.
Bessel van der Kolk 39:20
Absolutely. So my, my group did trauma Research Foundation actually, is starting again, a whole peer support organization network, basically, because when I was struck by this is that when we first started to talk about trauma, and some critical people in my mind, they were Judy Herman and me who were close friends and collaborators back then, is that I was running veterans groups she was running incest survivors groups, [inaudible] also incest survivors groups. And what we saw s books like Our Bodies, Our Selves, of women who really supported each other and this whole Sexual Abuse Awareness movement came out of the feminist society as a peer thing. And what we have also seen among veterans, for example, is that peer support and peer counseling and, etc, is extremely powerful, and probably more so than the professional help they can get. But that peer stuff seems to have disappeared. So soon as my Research Foundation, we’re very active right now, in teaching people peer support, we actually hooked up with an organization in China, of all places, of 130,000 people, which is very small by Chinese standards. of people who do peer support with each other. They read books together, they do meditation together, and have a very complex structure of people really having a mattress and holding environment of peers with whom they can process their stuff. Not unlike what you see in 12 step programs also, now you really don’t have to pay an insurance company in order to get help.
Jen Lumanlan 41:11
Yeah. Okay.So as we wrap up, I’m just wondering, if a parent is listening to this, and they’ve experienced trauma in their lives, and they’re seeing the effects of this come out in the ways that they’re interacting with their children, what advice do you have for that parent to try to work on interrupting that cycle?
Bessel van der Kolk 41:32
Well, I think I think therapy to work on your own stuff is terribly important. Maybe particularly therapy as you have young kids. And you can really observe yourself and your kids, and observe what it brings up inside of you and how you may be terrified, your kids will grow up just like somebody who you know, and what fears it evokes, and what makes you feel comfortable. And it makes you feel competent with your kid. And to really get a lot of support. None of us can raise kids by ourselves. Another thing that really struck me is that I know a handful of people now, about 10 couples who have young kids, and they’re by and large, not traumatized people and what I’m keeping impressed with is how quickly they find other couples to connect with. And to help them with co-parenting, and babysitting stuff and they form little pods of collaborative parenthood. And I see this in many different places. And what also strikes you probably is if you’ve been traumatized yourself, you’re probably less likely to easily establish a group like that around you of support. And then you may need some extra help. Maybe from a professional to find another group of people with whom you can do this together. But I think, you know, I know people who raise kids all by themselves. I think that’s an unbelievable challenge.
Jen Lumanlan 43:16
Yes, I agree.
Bessel van der Kolk 43:18
Yeah, and I know people who do it. And it’s very, very admirable, actually. But by and large, we need support.
Jen Lumanlan 43:26
Yeah. Okay. All right. So, so finding ways to get that support and in a variety of different ways it there’s no one model that works for everybody. It’s it’s what it is that what you feel you need to be supported with that is that the important part more than following any kind of prescription for the kind of support that you have.
Bessel van der Kolk 43:45
Beware of anybody who prescribes and says, This is the answer.
Jen Lumanlan 43:48
Bessel van der Kolk 43:50
Jen Lumanlan 43:51
Probably not. Awesome.
Jen Lumanlan 43:53
And don’t forget that if you want to get all the support that you need to work through the process of understanding where your triggered feelings really come from, and how to navigate them so that you can respond to your child effectively rather than going into usual fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode, where it feels like you don’t know how to react. You can sign up between Sunday, August 1 and Wednesday, August 11. I can’t wait to work with you there.
Jen Lumanlan 44:19
Thanks for joining us for this episode of Your Parenting Mojo. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com to receive new episode notifications, and the FREE guide to 13 Reasons Your Child Isn’t Listening To You And What To Do About Each One. And also join the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. For more respectful research based ideas to help kids thrive and make parenting easier for you. I’ll see you next time on Your Parenting Mojo.
About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.
Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership
She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com
And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school