Children and youth who have experienced traumatic stress often will share a number of seemingly contradictory characteristics, that are born out of a drive to cope with their experiences and survive in a world that they do not trust, and has not been kind to them.
One-on-one with adults these students function quite well. They will likely will enjoy and respond positively to supportive or innocuous conversations with adults. Adults in supportive roles, like school counselors or success coaches, will often describe these students as likable or even endearing. Some supportive adults will describe them as pleasant, charming or earnest. However, these students will also be “jumpy”, have a hard time concentrating, and struggle with confrontation or attempt to hold them accountable.
In a variety of settings, in the classroom, with supportive adults, as well as in unstructured times such as in the lunchroom at lunchtime, these students will often be quiet and watchful, engaging in what most professionals call “hyervigilance”.
While in the classroom these students can be well liked by their peers, sometimes even described as the class clown, they often will have no real close friends. They will quietly slip away after school and make no real attempt to connect with classmates in the evenings or over the weekend. At home they often spend a lot of time alone, in isolated locations like their bedrooms or basements, playing video games for hours on end. Many of these children will surround themselves with stuff animals, partly in an attempt to create a layer of protection around them, but also providing a source of comfort and support.
Students who have experienced traumatic stress will also likely struggle academically in school, becoming easily frustrated, and failing to hand in their homework. They will struggle to concentrate and often will be diagnosed as ADHD. However, children who have experienced traumatic stress will not respond well to medication. Additionally, they will struggle with authority and once again coping well with confrontation or discipline.
Students who struggle academically, AND struggle to make meaningful relationships with adults, AND to establish any really any relationships with their peers will often enter a negative perpetuating cycle with the school. For example the more they feel disconnected from the school and the people therein, the less engaged they are academically. The more they struggle academically, the less likely they are to establish or enjoy meaningful relationships. School itself becomes an everyday struggle.