Big Ts and little ts - its all trauma

for mentors for program directors Mar 12, 2024

In the world of trauma, you may hear the terms Big T and little T referring to traumatic events in one’s life. Recently, there has been a movement away from categorizing trauma into big and little events and although I haven’t read other’s perspectives on the topic I think the trend is a good one. In my opinion Big T and little t are much more about society’s view of what constitutes trauma and much less about the true impact trauma may have on an individual or how they experience it. 

I would imagine the idea of Big T and little t was progressive when it was introduced. There was a time that we only viewed Big Ts such as entering foster care, physical assault, rape, house fires, etc. as being traumatic. So I’m sure trauma trailblazers were bringing light to other things they saw in their work that caused equal or greater trauma like, being called fat by your mom, or being bullied at school. 

But now that the world has become much more trauma informed, the idea of categorizing traumas into big or little can leave individuals feeling invalidated and like, because they didn’t have big Ts, they should just get over it. The label of “little” minimizes patterns of trauma that may have had just as much if not more negative impact than Big Ts.

In my lifetime, I have had both Big Ts and little t’s, as the world would categorize them, but my little ts were much more devastating to me than the Big Ts and the little ts wore down my resilience and left me more vulnerable for Big Ts to happen. 

One of the most significant and repetitive micro traumas I endured was being told I was too much, too talkative, and annoying. I was born, the brightest light. I was happy, spunky, curious and came here to make a BIG splash. 

I had drive and wit and empathy and an ability to connect with others that only a young child could have. My mom would often lose me in the grocery store and find me sitting with an elderly lady asking her about her day.  As an adventurous, bright light, I was also loud, and questioning and always pushing the envelope. We would all love this little girl, right? The truth is, I was more often than not experienced as annoying, needing to be the center of attention, and inappropriate. 

It would have been super appreciated by the world if I just sat down and chilled out. As a parent today…I get it. 

How others experienced me didn’t feel good. I learned I didn’t belong - not as myself.  I learned to dial down my excitement for life. I learned to wait my turn. I learned that most things I had questions about weren't to be questioned. I learned it’s inappropriate to dance when you’re supposed to be sitting. God… we were always sitting. But I was smart, so I caught on pretty quickly. 

I remember getting on the school bus in the morning and thinking to myself over and over... I’m going to be good today.

I tried REALLY hard. But at some point throughout the day I would slip up, and my true self would make her snazzy little appearance and I would always disappoint someone. 

The adults would ask, “Why is it so hard for you to follow the rules like everyone else?” and the truth is, I wanted to know the same thing. I wish I got credit for trying because I really had good intentions. I did try. I would try again tomorrow. But there’s only so much trying before you begin to own everyone else’s perceptions of you. 

And so we live life on society’s terms, we become what is expected of us, little sheeple.

A good society needs many more followers than it needs innovators, and so we fall in line. At first it feels okay, you get dopamine hits from accolades, accomplishments, being a good team player, getting good grades, not making waves.  

But underneath the quick high of societal validation, the light inside of you is clawing at the walls of your insides, to be seen, validated, and valued for who you really are, and we know we can’t be that.

That wouldn’t be kosher… so we find ways of our own to dim the light. To ignore ourselves, so we can exist in this world, so we can be accepted by others. There is nothing little about this trauma I endured and that so many can relate to. It’s devastating and many of us spend our whole lives trying to fit in, belong, feel accepted and okay in our own skin.

Now I’m not minimizing Big Ts. I’ve experienced a bunch of them. There was a lot of death around me growing up. My mom was an alcoholic - she crashed her car once drunk when I was 4 or 5 and we hitchhiked from the scene of the accident to avoid the police. I’ve been raped and was sexually assaulted by a teacher at 13. At 14 my dad let me date a 21 year old drug addict and at 16 my parents let my 30 year old felon boyfriend, straight out of federal prison, live with us. 

And yea, these Big Ts sucked but what sucked more was how my community responded to these big Ts, people not believing me, blaming me even. Court cases that took 3 years and stole any fun teen years I should have been having. I think the small traumas were much more destructive. Like leeches draining your light and any resolve you have to think life is worth living.  

Starting in early childhood, where I was made to feel ashamed for who I was - just a bright, bubbly, exuberant little girl. If I had learned my worth and value, if my bright light was allowed to shine, I believe I would have had more resilience when life happened to me.

But, when big Ts hit and you already think you don’t matter, you accept it - why wouldn’t bad things happen to you?

We, as humans, like to make sense of things. We like to wrap things up into bows so we can comprehend. It’s easy for us to feel bad for someone who was obviously victimized. In the foster care and social work world, we list off Big Ts to justify children’s behavior, and to advocate for more services. But children are not their trauma. The amount, or enormity of trauma they’ve endured isn’t what makes them worth our time.

Children, like all of us, are worth being seen, heard, and valued for whatever makes them them, and many of the kids we meet have no clue who they truly are. So, as mentors, we walk alongside them and give them a safe space to discover their brilliant nature - under all the trauma’s - big, little, pervasive, etc.

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