|Credit: Marty Figley|
By John Ross
Reprinted with permission
Have you ever smelled something and it brought back memories from your childhood? I opened a container of raw oatmeal and for some reason decided to smell it, and there was an instant memory from my childhood of me eating raw oatmeal. The memory was vivid, the taste of the raw oatmeal was fresh in my mouth; I even saw myself in the memory, reaching in the box and getting a handful and putting it in my mouth and eating it. This would have been over 50 years ago for me. The thing that caught my attention the most was; how “instantly” the memory came. It was very abrupt, without warning, it was just there, playing in full and very detailed. And all I did was smell the raw oatmeal.
This incident has helped me in a great way in understanding the behavior of a lot of children. This has also helped me to understand why some kids will not talk about certain things in therapy. Smelling the raw oatmeal was a trigger that opened a memory from my past. With children, because of their abuse, there can be many things that can trigger something from their past. Yelling at them can trigger a memory of an angry parent ready to strike them for something they did wrong or just because they are angry. Mentioning a certain word can trigger something. A smell in the house can trigger something.
Kids who have suffered abuse around Thanksgiving, Christmas; the smell of turkey or ham cooking can be a trigger for them of the abuse that came during that holiday. Phrases like, “I’ll deal with you later” can be a trigger to an abusive moment in their past. Since a vast number of kids end up in foster homes during holidays, you may find that holidays trigger a lot of bad memories, even if the child is feeling safe where they are. I had no control over what came to my mind when I sniffed that raw oatmeal. I was not thinking about my past when I sniffed it. The same with those kids, they have no control over their past coming to mind when something triggers it. They don’t have to be thinking about their past or their families. It is abrupt and without warning and their reactions may be just the same.
The raw oatmeal for me, brought happy memories, fond memories, and I wanted to taste the raw oatmeal right then and there because I knew I could, it was present, right there for the taking. For a child, something that triggers a bad memory, to them, it is present, again, right there, and can easily happen to them again. I immediately wanted to eat the raw oatmeal right then. For a bad memory being triggered for a child it is different. The memory appears to be imminent and the abuse could happen again right then without them wanting it to. The lack of control as to whether it will happen again right then is a big part of their fear. Their behavior will reflect how they are dealing with it on the inside.
John Ross is a fellow foster parent who enjoys sharing advice with others who are along this journey. Stay tuned for Part 2 of John's great article on understanding triggers from a child's perspective...