How Children Process Pain

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

No one saw it happen. My three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter was in the basement by herself when she broke her arm. My guess is that she was jumping on the couch or standing on the back of it. Either way, the accident left her screaming and crying -- a natural response to being frightened and injured.

At the time, it wasn’t clear if she was seriously hurt. But my daughter said she behaved very differently after previous falls left her with minor bumps and bruises.

In a recent column, "Teaching Children How to Cope With Pain," I wrote about how parents should respond to children when they injure themselves. Experiencing pain is part of life, and children develop their own reactions based on an almost infinite number of factors.

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As adults, we tend to think about the physical trauma pain causes. We pay scant attention to how the young brain processes injuries or the images created in their minds as a result of them.

Children’s brains are unable to process trauma in the way adults do. This is due in part to the limited verbal ability young children have to express what they are feeling.

Still, they do integrate the experience of pain. And hopefully the lessons they learn about managing pain during childhood help them cope with pain when they reach adulthood.

Imagery and drawing are ways to help children effectively process their pain. The symbolic meaning of an image can be very revealing. Sigmund Freud described how imagery can reflect the feelings, attitudes and qualities of our environment.

Hermann Rorschach famously built on that idea to develop the Rorschach (or inkblot) test. The concept of the Rorschach test is that through drawing or interpreting images, children can convey the emotional loads they carry.

The first collection of children’s drawings of pain was published in 1885, well before Rorschach developed his test. It appeared in an article written by art reformer Ebenezer Cookie and illustrated how the stages of children’s development corresponded to the clarity of their drawings.

All trauma has the potential to affect a child’s development and perspective. This does not mean that all trauma damages the brain or renders a child unable to manage stress. In fact, trauma is a life experience that children must learn to manage without compromising their emotional development. That sets the stage for being able to handle pain effectively as they mature.

Velcro or Teflon

In his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says, “Your brain was wired in such a way when it evolved, it was primed to learn quickly from bad experiences but not so much from the good ones.”

That explains why traumatic memories so often stick in our brains while positive memories seem to slip away.

“It’s an ancient survival mechanism that turned the brain into Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive,” Hanson concludes.

On the day of my granddaughter's injury, my daughter called and asked for help. Fortunately, my wife and I live nearby, so I rushed over immediately. Even before I entered her home, I began to wonder whether the injury my granddaughter experienced would be more Teflon than Velcro.

Usually when I arrive, my granddaughter calls my name and races to give me a hug. That didn't happen on the day she fell. Instead, she was clinging to her mother, who was trying and failing to console her and "make it all better."

It was obvious to me that my granddaughter had a fracture and needed to be taken to the emergency room.

After the orthopedic surgeon treated and cast her arm, my granddaughter experienced minimal pain. It was a bump in the road she would one day forget. Or would she? And should she?

Two weeks later, my granddaughter was at preschool, where the class was studying cloud formations. Each student was asked to draw clouds and explain what their Rorschach images meant to them.

Below, you can see my granddaughter's drawing, which she made by applying blobs of ink to the paper and folding it in half. Her interpretation of that image was that the clouds were “my broken bones.”

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The separation of the clouds might have been the projection Freud would have expected from a child with a recent injury where bones were separated and had to be mended. 

It reinforced the lesson for me that young children are always processing and interpreting the events of their lives. These experiences create images and memories that are a part of their developing brains and personalities. 

Although my granddaughter is only three and a half, she is already forming her adult interpretation of pain, one layer at a time. Whether her experience will be more Teflon than Velcro, only time will tell.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary, “It Hurts Until You Die.” You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

This column is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.