The Fawning Response to Trauma: An Incident that Haunts Me Still

Greeting Wrinkles

There was nothing unusual at the start. We were at a small beach on Cape Ann, MA, sitting on the rocks and looking at the ocean with many boats sailing and motoring by us. A young boy, not more than three, asked if he could pet my dog Wrinkles.

To be sure, Wrinkles is petted often. He’s a basset hound who looks at you as if to say: Pet me please and yes, I do look handsome. People smile when they see him with his huge turned out paws (aligned akin to first position in ballet) and his long long floppy almost rabbit like ears. And he has a body that seems like it got stretched too far in length and legs that seem too short in height. Stated simply, Wrinkles is something of a clown dog, with eyes that beg you to pay attention to him. He is almost asking you to recognize him, touch him, connect with him.

And, for the record, I have never worried during the Pandemic about anyone touching my dog. It seemed a stretch to me that, even when virus transmission has been at its worst, Wrinkles could be a carrier of COVID. Perhaps in some rare case he could carry my germs (were I ill) to the person petting him or visa versa but we were generally outdoors when he met folks, and he wanted and needed to be petted and folks were desperate for touch and a funny loveable dog was the answer.

The Little Boy

A family with two children and a canoe arrived at the beach; I could hear them behind us and glanced back. I heard the mother sternly say to her daughter: “Just go pee in the water. Everyone does.” And the expectation was, apparently, that this four-ish year old child, wearing a life jacket, would saunter on her own into the water and squat or sit to pee. No parental help was forthcoming. There she’d be, alone in the water, doing something that was only mildly more comfortable than needing to pee badly.

At just that moment, a small boy — no more than three — came up to us, tightly wrapped in his life jacket like his sister. He ever so quietly asked, “Can I pet your dog?” “Of course,” I said. He replied, “I’m Henry.” “Hi Henry,” I said. He responded, “I’m Super Henry, not superhero Henry, just Super Henry.” “OK,” I said, “nice to meet you Super Henry.” The others in my group — a father and his adult son — added their welcome by saying ever so graciously, “Hello Super Henry.”

Super Henry started petting Wrinkles and soon focused on his ears. “They are wet at the bottom and not at the top or sides,” he remarked to the three of us as he felt Wrinkle’s ears. And with the dog’s right ear in one hand, he reached for my hand with his other hand. We had a perfect triangle: Wrinkles, Super Henry and me. Henry kept holding my hand while chattering on about the dog’s ears.

At one point he asked the three of us, “Can I pet Wrinkles when I am back? Will you let me?” “Of course,” we all responded separately. Super Henry asked again, “Can I be with you when I get back?” “Of course,” we answered, although I have to say I wondered how exactly we could make good on that promise.

Shortly thereafter, Henry’s father approached where the three of us were sitting and Henry was standing. Not saying a word to the seated adults, he said, “Come along Henry.” The mother passed by us too on the way to the canoe in the ocean, not uttering a word or even looking our way and smiling. Super Henry hesitated for a split second as his father repeated his request that he leave us and then off went Henry into the canoe with his family.

What Did that Mean to You?

I asked the father and adult son with me: “What did you make of Super Henry and his holding my hand, holding the hand of a complete stranger?” And I added, “ I have worked with many kids who had clung to my arms and legs without knowing me but never this — never has a child who is a complete stranger taken my hand in his and held it continuously.” And I thought to myself without a word on this out loud: how odd are the parents who don’t even say hello or remark on the nicety of someone strange holding their son’s hand.

“He’s trusting,” said the father who was with me. “His parents are too,” said his adult son. “Everyone was trusting each other,” the adult son added. The father nodded in agreement. I listened to their perceptions and perspective: for them, the whole incident was about the presence of trust and a wee boy was trusting a stranger to hold his hand and his trusting parents were allowing that to happen.

I exclaimed, almost jumping off the rock where I was seated, “I see it differently, vastly differently. I think Super Henry was missing affection and touch. He needed to feel someone’s hand in his. This whole thing wasn’t about trust; it was about the absence of parental emotional responsiveness.”

The father and adult son both paused and looked at me as if to say: “Really? This was about something negative not positive? What a different take.” I could see their internal wheels turning.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a specialist in trauma and have been working with educators and students for years on how trauma impacts learning and psycho-social development. This is the work I do professionally but unfortunately, as evidenced here, that work creeps into non-work time. That is because I wear a permanent “trauma lens,” one borne from scholarship, in the trenches work opportunities in a myriad of schools and organizations, and my own trauma filled life experiences.

I often remark on trauma’s invisibility to the normal eye, and it is oft-times mistaken for something else — just as I suspect happened here. The father and adult son saw no trauma; they saw trust; I saw trauma and the traumatic response of many children, which is fawning. Now, to be sure, I could be wrong and they could be right. But, in the field of trauma, instinct and knowledge and experience do play a role in its identification. It is after all what I do for a living. It is just that my work crosses over the bridge to my private life and these days, it is leaping over with regularity.

I was shaken by the incident and my differing interpretation of it. Children in need can sense friendly “stranger” adults and cling to them as a way of connecting; that isn’t all that unusual. It happens often when I teach in elementary schools and read the stories I have written for children to them. I have become accustomed to it and what it means.

I remember distinctly being at the front of a classroom being introduced and a child came in late and immediately latched onto my leg. I remember remarking, “Hi. Nice to see you. Glad you are here.” Internally, I was wondering how much this child needed and wanted attention and touch.

Connectivity

Our brains are wired for connectivity. We actually are hard wired to connect to each other. One of the things that social distancing does and the Pandemic and trauma do is to truncate connection. These intervening events literally shut down what we do desperately need, including touch.

And, Super Henry, without having a name for what he needed and why, reached out and touched both the dog and me and created a connected triangle. He was filing a void that he couldn’t verbalize. And, to his credit, he knew what he needed at that moment (and perhaps other moments too).

Watching his parents, noting their failure to say nary a word to us and to their children, reinforced my perceptions: Super Henry was in need of connection — supplied at the beach by a dog and a woman. He in essence responded to his internal needs to overcome whatever he lacked at home. And that lack was painfully clear to me. Hauntingly clear. Traumatized children fawn; they connect when connection isn’t the norm. They latch on, sort of like an infant latches onto a mother’s breast. Instinct. They have a need and they find a way to meet it.

And Now?

We weren’t at the beach when Super Henry returned to shore. Wrinkles was home eating dinner. The adult son was driving back to his home near Boston, and the adult son’s father and I were enjoying each other and the sunset. But, Super Henry and his holding of my hand has stayed with me for days now, including his not finding us later.

At one level, I wanted (and still want) to find him so he had (has) a hand to hold. At another level, I think he reminds me of what we all need now, with the Delta variant and the return to masks. We need connectivity. We need touch. We need to feel that someone is actually there for us.

Unlike little Henry — Super Henry — we do not grab the hands of strangers and the ears of dogs. But, in a symbolic sense, we need and want to do just that. We want someone to create a feeling triangle for us, one that allows us to feel something soft (a dog’s ear) and hold something stable and comforting (a welcoming hand).

I worry about Super Henry. His need for connection is high. He isn’t getting what he needs at home and his parental failure to even say a word to us as their child held my hand is startling. They were, in a word, disconnected.

We All Are Super Henry

But, Super Henry is really all of us as we move forward in these uncertain times. We have lost the connectivity we had and we are in need of re-connection. Sometimes, that shows itself as anger. We snap at strangers as we drive and eat in restaurants. We aren’t nearly as “tuned in” as Henry who saw what he needed and got it.

Now, I’m not suggesting we all touch one another; I am not suggesting that we go around grabbing the ears of basset hounds or other dogs. But, what I am suggesting is that our need to feel connected runs both deep and wide. And we would be wise to recognize that need and consider ways that need can be met.

Super Henry, I hope I see you again. My hand and my dog are there for you. And readers, please recognize that what a child did is actually a cry for all of us to restore what our brains are wired to do: connect. Super Henry knew how. The rest of us are still learning.

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor