According to Dr. Bruce Perry, a leading psychiatrist in the field of child trauma, differential state reactivity is the response of a child to external stimuli which is based on their past experience. To put it simply, when a child has experienced trauma in their past, they will respond to a situation in a way that may not match with the way we might expect them to react. This can be confusing for many people involved in the child’s life, such as parents, carers, teachers, or their peers. We might perceive these reactions as challenging or ‘naughty’ behaviours. But what if we were to view this child’s reaction as a response that was learned as a way of making sense of their world?
Stress inevitably changes our state of reactivity, whether it is a child who has experienced trauma or not. However, for a child who has had multiple or complex traumas, the reaction is much more severe or ‘reactive’. Vulnerable children will experience stress when environmental stimuli are unpredictable as they have experienced interrupted and unpredictable caregiving. A resilient child has a more predictable and controlled response to stimuli as they have experienced predictable and controlled caregiving, thus learning how to regulate their emotions more effectively.
An example might be: a resilient child may scrape their knee after falling over in the playground. They will experience some stress, however being resilient (modeled by the caregivers) the response may be that they are calm and they seek comfort from their caregiver. The response here is moderate and controlled. A vulnerable child experiences the same scrape on their knee, however, their worldview is different so the stress they experience may come across as alarm or fear, causing them to have a hyper vigilant response. For these children, when something unpredictable happens the response is severe and prolonged. As a trauma informed practitioner, I take this into consideration to individualize treatment for my clients and help them to establish ways of regulating their inner world to match their outer world.