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Childhood Trauma and Its Effects: Implications for Police
By NIJ: Richard G. Dudley, Jr., M.D.
Published: 07/13/2015

Children Repeated exposure to traumatic events during childhood can have dramatic and long-lasting effects. During the past 20 years, there has been an enormous increase in our understanding of how being repeatedly traumatized by violence affects the growth and development of preadolescent children, especially when such traumatized children lack a nurturing and protective parental figure that might mitigate the impact of the trauma. In this paper, I summarize the current understanding of the effects of ongoing trauma on young children, how these effects impair adolescent and young adult functioning, and the possible implications of this for policing.

To demonstrate this, I describe the case of a 17-year-old African American male who was charged with attempted murder. I was asked to perform a psychiatric evaluation because (1) everyone who knew him was shocked about what happened because, before the crime, he had never been in trouble and he had always appeared to be functioning well; and (2) he appeared to be extremely unemotional about what happened, which his attorney viewed as either a lack of remorse or a failure to appreciate how much trouble he was in.

Although this young man had always lived in an extremely violent and drug-infested neighborhood, he was neither a drug dealer nor a gang member. Instead, he had shown such promise that his single mother had gotten him a scholarship to a private school. He was performing well in school despite the problems in his neighborhood and his home, including his mother’s involvement in a series of relationships in which she had been physically abused. When I asked him about the multiple homemade tattoos on his body, he told me that each represented a family member or friend who had been killed. He cried as he described the first in this series of deaths, including the death of his best friend, which occurred when they were 8 years old and walking home from school. He also noted that the most recent death, that of his brother, occurred about a year ago. As he spoke of these deaths, that first one, which occurred about 9 years ago, seemed just as fresh to him as the recent death of his brother. In addition, I was struck by the fact that this young man had never been given any parental support that might have helped him begin to cope with these losses. When he was only 8 years old, instead of helping her young son cope with his trauma, his mother yelled at him for being on a street that she had told him not to go on.

During his psychiatric evaluation, it became clear that the young man’s initial unemotional presentation was a psychological defense against his enormous fear that he would be killed. He had been carrying a gun since his brother was killed; the shooting incident for which he was charged was the first time he had used the gun. Furthermore, the fear for his life, coupled with his almost taking another’s life, made the incident yet another traumatic experience for him.

It also became clear that his history of trauma influenced his interaction with the police at the time of his arrest. The police had shown no sensitivity to him when he was 8 years old, found holding and crying over his dead friend’s body. Instead, they simply pulled him away from his friend, pushed him into the background, and never attempted to assess his physical or emotional status or make sure that someone else did so. During his early adolescent years, he had seen police officers mistreat others, which made it harder for him to trust or feel comfortable with police officers. His interaction with the police was further complicated by their initial presumption that he, like the victim, was a gang member and that the attempted murder was gang-related, which influenced not only perceptions of him but also how they treated him, even though he presented no physical threat to them. As a result, the police were physically aggressive with him. Being roughed up made him fearful of the police, and his attempts to manage that high level of anxiety and fear with an unemotional and cold presentation caused the police to be suspicious that he would suddenly act out, which in turn caused them to be even more confrontational and physical with him.

Police officers may also suffer from trauma-related difficulties that impair their ability to do their work. These may be long-standing difficulties stemming from their own childhood that were never identified or adequately addressed, or they may stem from traumatic experiences that occurred while working as a police officer. However, a fuller discussion of that is beyond the scope of this paper.

Stress, Trauma and Parental Protection

Understanding the stress response in children requires consideration of both the persistence and the severity of the stressor — which can range from those experienced by all children to the most severe traumatic events — and the availability of parental nurture, support and protection.

All children have stressful experiences, such as the anxiety associated with the first day of school, being frustrated by a friend’s behavior, or being frightened by a big dog. Stresses such as these can be positive experiences when a nurturing adult helps the child learn healthy ways to manage anxiety, frustration and fear (Briere and Lanktree, 2008; Gunnar and Quevedo, 2008; Tarullo and Gunnar, 2006). Some children are also exposed to far more stressful experiences, such as the death of a parent or other close family member, their own childhood illness, or exposure to an isolated incident of violence. Here, too, a nurturing, protective adult can help the child overcome the distress associated with the event and thereby help the child not only tolerate the stressor but also grow from the event (Goslin et al., 2013; Maschi, 2006).

Some children are exposed to events that are exceptionally stressful. The impact of such traumatic events is more severe when they occur repeatedly (Breslau et al., 1999). Various types of violence can traumatize children, including sexual abuse and nonsexual physical abuse (Beitchman et al., 1992; Saywitz et al., 2000). Trauma can also result if a child witnesses acts of violence, including domestic violence and street violence (Berton and Stabb, 1996; Fitzpatrick and Boldizar, 1993). Additionally, psychological abuse that threatens violence, especially when the child has seen the perpetrator become violent, can traumatize children (Levendosky et al., 2002).

Although parental support can attenuate the effects of repeated exposure to extremely traumatic events, this support tends not to be available to these children, who need it the most (Green et al., 1991; Terr, 1991). In the vast majority of these cases, the parents of these children are either abusive (i.e., perpetrators of the abuse) or neglectful (i.e., they have failed to protect the child from exposure to the violence) or both, instead of nurturing and protecting the child. This repeated violent traumatization in the absence of parental nurture and protection is toxic to developing children. The group of children who suffer from this harmful combination are the focus of this paper. The resulting psychiatric impairments and associated dysfunction they exhibit as children and adolescents significantly increase their risk of coming into contact with police officers and present a significant challenge to police officers when such contact occurs.

Dudley, Richard G., Jr., M.D. Childhood Trauma and Its Effects: Implications for Police. New Perspectives in Policing Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 2015. NCJ 248686

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