There is a movie coming out on Tuesday, July 21st entitled, Coraline. It has Portland ties for a few reasons: the animation company is here, its initial release was here, and, yes it is easily one of my favorite animated movies ever - and high on my favorite of all time list of movies. This favorite ranking is also for a couple reasons: the animation and 3-D - AMAZING!, the story - amazingly written and presented and finally, it touches me deep in my heart for the character of Coraline; a heroine that tugs at my heart and illustrates the ability of children to use imagination to leave the world of violence, neglect and abuse behind them.
I have written before about what is the truth about children and "resilience." Children are not "resilient" or wait, they are resilient but not in the positive way that many psychologists and especially those who expose children to violence and suffering would have you believe. Children's resiliency is more about their lack of formal thought and resistance to keeping harmful memories within reach of their frontal lobe (where decision making and logical response is located). The exposure I speak of includes al lof those types that I have written about in the past: media, interparental, environmental, peer victimization and educational violence. They way that many children respond to the chronic exposure is to stop being in the moment and put their brains to sleep for the duration of the abuse. This strategy sometimes extends to their non-abuse times as well.
Dissociation is the psychological strategy of pulling away from your cognizant self in order to deal with , usually, trauma of some sort. For example, former child sex abuse survivors who are now adults, remember "leaving" their bodies when the script began wherein they would be abused by their predator; the father would come into the bedroom after the mother had put the child to bed. He would come in to "tuck the child in" but both parties knew it was the time when the abuse would occur so the child disappeared within him or her self in order to deal with the abuse. That is kind of the metaphor at the heart of Coraline. She feels neglected by her family and so she dissolves into a world where she is the center of her "Other" parents' world. Children do disappear into their own worlds because their brain is protecting them from the violence that surrounds them; it doesn't go away.
What therapists like Drs. Lenore Terr, Bruce Perry & James Garbarino have found is that children don't "bounce back" from trauma - they remember, they are shaped, they recollect. Increased research about post traumatic stress disorder (ptsd) is on the rise because we are finding that the resilience of children to move forward doesn't mean they arent profoundly affected by their experiences. Even in Coraline, her real life is what shaped her fantasy life - the ideal parents in her other world weren't strangers, they were her parents - just a little bit different.
It doesn't take hypnotherapy to retrieve those memories; it takes a close observation of children's behavior. When children are exposed to chronic violence, their behavior reflects that exposure. Children will be "numb" to their peers OR, hypervigilant/sensitive to their peers pain. There is a balance to well-adjusted children that chronic violence-affected children do not possess. In addition, there are more obvious clues like increased externalization of violent responses - a child who has grown up with interparental abuse for example, may quickly strike a playmate should the playmate not give in to the wishes of the child. In both worlds, Coraline's behavior was affected by the other world. But what's even more clever, when the Other World seeped into her real world - it tried to become normalized. That is what the chronic level of exposure to violence does to us - the abnormal becomes normal.
Again, I don't want teachers, parents, paraprofessionals and caregivers to become therapists - it takes training, practicum and experience to become a therapist for children. What I would hope is that we take a slightly different view of what happens to kids after they have been exposed to violence. It doesn't go away, they don't forget and you need to be aware that children are thinking of, and are shaped by, their exposure. But sometimes they shut it out and do their best to forget until someone brings it up - be sensitive and in the moment to respond positively and not punitively. When Coraline did try to escape the disaster that her Other World had become, it was her parents that helped her to change her real life rather than get lost in her Other.
Buy, rent or borrow the movie....