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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Living Life with Faulty Connections

What children say gives us a window into their minds. It also provides us with understanding about some of the uneasiness we experience as adult. Since moving to Washington state, my granddaughter has lost two of her great-grandparents. The difference between causation and correlation are not part of her eight-year-old thinking tools and she said, “If we hadn’t moved, they wouldn’t have died.” Thank you for verbalizing that!

I had just written a blog for the Attachment and Trauma Network in which I discussed how triggers get created as a result of trauma. This was not a traumatic event such as abuse, but moving was still a significant life event for her. As a result, she made a faulty connection.

Faulty connections can fall into two categories: correlations and causations. Correlations connect two things that happen simultaneously, but causations involve thinking one caused the other to happen. My granddaughter’s faulty connection was a causation. The cause and effect connection she made was faulty, but unless processed could have far-reaching effects.

Far reaching effects, you ask? Let’s follow the path. What if she continued to believe that moving caused people she loved to die. Would she leave this behind as she grew older and realized that people died whether she moved or didn’t move? Possibly. Hopefully. But, what if this uneasy feeling about moving got embedded in her feelings, but she lost why it was connected? What if the memory of losing the great-grandparents after moving was lost, but the uneasiness about moving remained? Would she decide not to ever move, even when it would be a good life choice? What adventures or opportunities might she miss because of this uneasiness?

We all have these faulty connections, you know. I personally found extensive faulty connections in my story. Some of them were because of abuse and trauma, but some of them were simply incorrect perceptions. They were the stuff of childhood sense making.

There is no possible way to prevent all of these faulty connections during childhood. There is potential for a faulty connection every single day of a child’s life. To our advantage though, if we are listening, children will give us clues. Until they forget the connection and are simply left with an uneasy feeling, they often know what they connected together.

Connections relate to, but are not the same as triggers. Being able to remember the connection is generally not true of triggers. A trigger is created when some random sensory experience is grabbed out of the environment or felt in the body and hooked to the trauma.

Triggers activate in physical flight, fright, or freeze ways, while faulty connections simply get filed as information. Trauma takes this normal sense-making process and distorts it. Normally, the realization that a connection was incorrect results in cognitive dissonance, but when a trigger is created the psyche cannot ‘think through’ the faulty connection. Explained very simplistically, the subconscious perceives it as danger and activates a defense response. This is not a choice a child is consciously making!

Even without trauma, raising (or teaching) children requires a constant monitoring of connections. Recognizing and altering faulty connections are the essence of day-to-day conversations. It is how we help children grow and understand the world. Sometimes their misconceptions are amusing, but informative. This is what caregiver-child interactions are meant to be. When trauma disrupts it, both children and caregivers greatly benefit from (and need) therapeutic intervention.

Even without extreme trauma (every child experiences something traumatic at some point—sometimes without adults being fully aware), both child and adult psyches have embedded faulty connections. It is often these connections that create our likes, dislikes, fears, and sometimes phobias. My full understanding of this during therapy was often a result of residual learning. I didn’t need to know why I hated Brussels sprouts, but I saw them sitting on a plate while processing a seemingly unrelated trauma and my physical response of nausea from that trauma. I still never plan to eat any. It isn’t affecting my quality of life. I would not have gone to therapy to figure out why I hated a particular vegetable. It was simply residual learning.

There were other connections that were affecting my quality of life. That is the determiner for needing assistance. There was so much I did to avoid shame and triggers. It wasn’t healthy. I didn’t live out my innermost dreams. I certainly was not ever going to be BRAVE. It was all embedded in the fractured psyche of a child who didn’t get the help she needed to disconnect her faulty connections.

We understand more now. We can do better.

Listen to the children. Talk to the children. Follow the clues they leave to their faulty connections. Help them be free to live the lives they were intended to live. Every one of us can change the world one child at a time.

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