Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Author, Mental Health Therapist, Researcher, Expert in Attachment Trauma

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“Now that I understand this is dissociation, I’m not mad at him anymore,” said his mother.

file3111258685095Dissociation in children is poorly understood. I have always had mixed feelings about speaking with parents about signs of severe dissociation in their child, because I have been afraid that the discussion would lead the parents to pathologize the child.  Yet, this is a real phenomenon, and when dissociation is not recognized, affected children can end up feeling rejected by their confused and frustrated parents.

Dissociation can be experienced at varying degrees of severity.  We all experience slight dissociation when we are bored, example, and “space out” or “day dream.” Very young children experiencing trauma dissociate or “go away” mentally because they have no other recourse.  They are not big enough to fight or flee. Regular early dissociation wires the brain to life-long dissociation.

The “Structural Dissociation Model” (van der Hart, Nijenhuis, & Steele) posits that severe traumatization leads to little “Emotional Parts” (EPs) of self that are separated off from the front part of self in order to keep memories and their associated emotions at bay.  From a neurological point of view, the EPs are neural networks of unmetabolized stored trauma and emotion in the back of the brain.  When the memory or emotions are triggered, the trauma survivor begins operating out of that EP, and the individual completely or nearly loses access to what I call the “Front Part of Self.”  When the trauma survivor is back in Front Self, his memory for what he was thinking or feeling when dissociated may be confused or even absent.

One mother and father who previously reacted angrily to their child’s sudden switches and seemingly bizarre behaviors have new insight regarding the phenomenon of dissociation.  They report that because of this understanding, they have been able to remain calm and much more effective in keeping their child regulated. I am now convinced that education about dissociation can increase compassion and support for this vulnerable population.  I will write more about dissociation in later blogs.

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