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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

Frozen in Complex Trauma

Updated: May 6, 2019

Have you ever seen the movie Frozen? You might be surprised to consider that its actually a story about Complex Trauma and recovery. (At least, that's how I understand it!)

"Complex Trauma" refers to multiple traumas, ongoing trauma, and especially trauma that occurred during childhood, as opposed to a single, traumatic incident. Complex Trauma also includes "Developmental" or "Relational Trauma"--when a child's caregivers are unable to physically or emotionally support and/or protect a child. Complex Trauma often results in negative self experience, difficulty relating with others, and often leads to further vulnerability.

Let's take a look at the development, aftermath and recovery of Complex Trauma through a few key moments in the movie Frozen.

1. Elsa hurts Anna.

Elsa and Anna are young children, probably anywhere from the ages of 4-9 years old. They love each other, they enjoy playing together. Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her snow powers. As any child of this age would, realistic or not, Elsa blames herself. She is terrified and becomes angry and ashamed with herself for hurting her sister. Kids often don't differentiate between a thing that happened, instead they see their whole selves as bad. They need their grown ups to help them understand the difference. But Elsa's parents can't do that--they themselves are scared. They tell her "conceal, don't feel..."; she learns that she has to hide her "defective" or "bad" self. She learns that her parents, her grown-ups, can't help her with her feelings--that her emotions are dangerous. As a result, she grows up believing she herself is dangerous. Regardless of the traumatic incident that occurs, young children will assume that they have caused it. Children also need help putting what happened into words, and coping with their feelings. If grown ups can't help kids through it due to their own "stuff" (ie. anxiety/fears, grief, trauma, substance abuse, relationship conflict, stress, etc.), there can be dire consequences for the child.

2. Elsa Isolates.

Elsa goes on living with the belief that she is "bad". She attempts to protect Anna by distancing herself. In so doing, they lose their relationship. Anna feels abandoned. Both are alone.

3. Elsa and Anna's Parents Die.

Both children are left alone once again cope with the loss of their mom and dad--another traumatic loss. They are both completely isolated.

4. Desperate for Love, Anna jumps into a toxic relationship.

Exhausted by feelings of loneliness, abandonment and loss, Anna leaps into a relationship with Hans, a man who is dishonest and is seeking to exploit her. Elsa, filling in for the loss of their grown ups, attempts to protect her sister, rejecting the relationship. Feeling rejected--yet again, Anna rebels.

5. Elsa's Fight, Flight, Freeze takes over.

Although Elsa has managed thus far to shut down her feelings, distancing herself from her powers, she is unable to contain her intense feelings about Anna and Hans. Her fears about Anna's well-being along with her fears of her own emotional self throw her into Fight, Flight, Freeze, where she literally Freezes the entire town and runs away.

6. Elsa succumbs to a life of self-punishment.

Elsa can no longer contain her feelings. She is so angry with herself for having feelings, for not being able to contain them, for hurting her sister, for being bad, for not being able to control Anna, for the loss of her parents, she embraces her "badness". She lets her powers go wild, outwardly and directly rejecting her sister, Olaf (the metaphor for their early childhood loving relationship) and any human connection. "The cold never bothered me anyway", she lies to herself.

7. Anna becomes preoccupied with saving Elsa (and almost dies).

Anna is driven by her love for and loss of her sister. Her entire life becomes focused on saving her. She is almost killed by Elsa's rage.

8. Anna learns about authentic love and mutual relationships from the healers.

"We're not saying you can change her, ‘cause people don't really change We're only saying that love's a force that's powerful and strange People make bad choices if they're mad, or scared, or stressed Throw a little love their way and you'll bring out their best True love brings out their best! Everyone's a bit of a fixer-upper, that's what it's all about!"

9. "True love will thaw a frozen heart".

Elsa and Anna repair their relationship. They each recognize the pain they've suffered in their distance, the harm they've caused, and they try a new way of being: with love. Anna's abandonment scars begin to heal; she chooses an authentic relationship with Kristoff. With the support of a healthy, open relationship with her sister, Elsa presumably learns to feel and accept her feelings, without setting off world climate change. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Of course, at the end of the day, Frozen is just another Disney movie. But it really gets alot of important things right:

  • We're all wired for connection. We need love and relationships to survive and thrive.

  • Loss of connection hurts. Sometimes unbearably. We will do anything we can--even lock ourselves in crazy ice castles or marry someone we just met--to protect ourselves from the pain of loss.

  • Because of the way children develop, they are vulnerable to interpreting events outside of themselves as their fault. Kids need help separating undesirable behaviors from a good, lovable self.

  • Children are vulnerable to shame and negative self beliefs ("I'm bad"). Kids need grown ups to "tune in" to kids feelings, recognize and help correct unrealistic beliefs and protect kids from too much shame.

  • Children need adults to normalize feelings, to teach them how to understand and cope with them.

  • Connection, mutual, trustworthy relationships, tuning in, accepting, compassion, they all support recovery from trauma.

  • We could all use a good healer in our lives!

  • It's never too late for re-connection and repair.

If you're feeling "frozen"from Complex Trauma, loss or disconnection, Creating Space Counseling and Wellness can help. I can offer the authentic relationship you need to feel safe again, both with your most difficult thoughts and feelings and in your relationships with others. I can help you (re)connect with your best self!

Call today to for a free 15 minute phone consultation! 856-281-1664


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