Hidden Hurt explains how dissociation occurs in children:
The unconscious is like a great holding area or reservoir of unprocessed events. Anything we don’t or can’t assimilate consciously goes there. The unconscious holds irrelevant things such as images of strangers we see on the street. It also holds important things that need to be brought into conscious awareness but may be too big to fit our existing system (conscious mind). There are times when people are unable to fully assimilate the significance of an overwhelming experience such as a car accident. One of the passengers calmly calls an ambulance, administers first aid, and reroutes oncoming traffic. Once the ambulance arrives, she falls apart and cries hysterically. In order to take care of the immediate priorities, she dissociated her feelings and emotions temporarily. The dissociation allowed her to break up the oversized experience into manageable pieces. These were assimilated as soon as it was safe to do so. If the accident survivor didn’t assimilate the dissociated part of her experience, she would probably suffer the PTSD symptoms.
Children are commonly seen to dissociate—not because of trauma, but because every time they get a new type of experience, they have to modify or expand their faculties in order to assimilate it. In the meantime, the experience is dissociated and held in the unconscious. There, they “play with it,” using their imagination until they work out a way to make a fit.
Children go through a very high rate of new experiences and may frequently dissociate as a normal response to an unfamiliar event. They are continually modifying and expanding their system, or conscious mind. This is the process of growth and learning. As they mature, children may dissociate less and less, because there are fewer and fewer experiences that don’t fit their conscious system.
Children rely extensively on adults for interpretation. Their developing comprehension is largely fashioned after that of their parents or caregivers. If caregivers are emotionally damaged, their own skewed view of the world is imposed upon their children.
Unresolved issues in the parents’ unconscious are misinterpreted for the child. This is a common phenomenon known as projection. For example, if parents feel shame but cannot admit it, they may deny it, separate themselves from it, disown it, dissociate from it, and project it onto their children. They then condemn their children as being shameful. In psychology this is described as retaliatory defense. In other words, the shame the parents have within themselves but cannot accept is expressed by shaming the children. In fact, the less parents are able to accept the “monster” within themselves, the more readily they are able to see it in their children.
Emotionally troubled parents frequently reinforce skewed interpretations with abuse. If the abuse is extreme, as practiced by destructive families, a child’s conscious world becomes overwhelmed. The extreme abuse is dissociated into the unconscious, but it cannot be made to fit, even in a misinformed way. The trauma remains dissociated. To survive, children tap into extraordinary coping skills, fashioned from within their own unconscious.
Adults can also experience dissociation, whether due to childhood trauma or adulthood trauma. Rape Crisis Scotland defines dissociation as follows:
Dissociation is when the brain ‘disconnects’ from what is happening. It goes somewhere ‘safe’. Other words for this include ‘switching off’ or ‘spacing out’. Everyone does this at times. A common example is driving somewhere familiar and then realising that you cannot remember part of the journey. Sometimes it is a defence mechanism which helps people survive traumatic events – by cutting off from what is actually happening. Dissociation can be very helpful for protecting people when something out of the ordinary happens such as a car crash or the sudden death of someone close. People do not choose to dissociate – it usually happens automatically. There are different forms of dissociation ranging from mild to severe. Dissociation is a natural response to the trauma of sexual violence.
Self-care is an important aspect of combating dissociative disorders. On “What Can Help?” Mind reports:
Recovery usually requires active self-help, and so it’s common for therapists to set homework that includes a variety of self-help techniques and exercises. If you want to try self-help techniques on your own, remember that dissociation can complicate this. In dissociative identity disorder (DID), for instance, the identity who self-harms must be involved in any self-help activity for managing behaviours. Keeping a journal is one way to help improve connections, and (in DID) awareness and cooperation between identities. It can include the writings or artwork from any part of your dissociated self.
Visualisation is a way to use your imagination to create internal scenes and environments which help you stay safe and contain difficult feelings and thoughts. With practice, you can also use this to bring different identities together to make co-operative decisions.
Grounding techniques, which keep you connected to the present, can help you avoid feelings, memories, flashbacks or intrusive thoughts that you can’t yet cope with. The many techniques include breathing slowly, walking barefoot, talking to someone, touching something and sniffing something with a strong smell.
Strategies for everyday challenges can help you cope with everyday life. For instance, a person who loses time due to dissociation, may decide to wear a watch with the day and date on it.