Harry Potter grew up with his aunt, uncle, and cousin. His parents were killed when he was an infant. Miraculously Harry survived the attack, but it left a scar on his forehead. Harry subsequently grew up in the care of his aunt (moms sister), uncle, and a cousin. He had a room under the stairs in the house and had very little information about his biological parents. At the age of 11 he went to boarding school, the same school his parents went to. He quickly learned that those at the school knew more about his parents and his own life than he did. Harry developed close relationships with two peers and a couple of the staff at the school. However, each year at the school, the same individual and group that murdered his parents, made an attempt at his life. Each year the battle grew until it became a war. It wasn’t until his final year of school that the war resolved, the final event nearly took his life.
However, here is a more playful look at his life in 99 seconds:
Adverse Childhood Experiences
- Psychological abuse by parents/caregivers (e.g. verbal abuse, excessive punishment):
YES – While living with his aunt and uncle, they lied about Harry’s past, treated him differently from their own son, and had him living under the stairs or in a locked room.
- Physical abuse
NO – As cruel as his aunt and uncle were, they never hit him. Of course we can consider some of the staff at Hogwarts, but they were not in Harry’s household.
- Sexual abuse
NO – Not reported in the books or movies.
- Emotional neglect
YES – Harry was treated as a major inconvenience in his aunt and uncles life.
- Physical neglect or malnourishment
YES – His aunt and uncle withheld food from him and had him in rooms that were not appropriate for his age.
- Domestic violence
NO – Not reported in the books or movies.
- Parental alcoholism or drug use in home
NO – Not reported in the books or movies.
- Loss of biological parent before age 18 (Death or absence)
YES – Lost both of his parents as an infant.
- Parental mental illness or depression
MAYBE – This is difficult, there were traits of it in his aunt. However, it also seemed to be a case of living in distress or incongruent to who she wants to be and who she actually is.
- Household member imprisoned
YES – His godfather, Sirius Black, was in Azkaban.
- Multiple changes in placement or primary caregiver
YES – As an infant living with his aunt and uncle. Then at the age of 11 he went on to live at Hogwarts, with the Weasley’s and subsequent other dwellings for his safety.
- Serious medical issue involving hospitalization?
YES – From his first school year at Hogwarts, Harry ended up in hospital care multiple times, including missing bones.
Discussion About ACE’s
Harry Potter has experienced seven, maybe eight, adverse childhood experiences. This means that he is at a 150-400% increased risk of experiencing health or behavior concerns as an adult (without intervention).
We’ll discuss some of the protective factors in a moment. But first I wanted to address some of the shortcomings of ACE’s as it applies to Harry Potter. First, is growing up in a time of war is not covered in the ACE’s, and it has great impacts on development, as the brain is in a constant state of survival. Therefore the survival brain is overdeveloped as compared to the emotional/relational and rational/thinking parts of the brain. Another area lacking is loss of impactful individuals that do not live in the household. Yes, Harry lost his parents and that is covered in ACEs, but the loss of his uncle Sirius and headmast Dumbledore are not. And, in fact, they may compound the losses that Harry has already experienced, leading to a complex grief.
Protective Childhood Experiences (PCE’s)
- Able to talk to family about emotions
SORT OF – This may come down to definitions of the family you choose and the family you are born with. The family Harry was born with, his aunt and uncle, he could not talk about his feelings. The family of choice, the Weasley’s, yes Harry could talk about his inner feelings.
- Felt that family stood by in difficult times
YES – After meeting his uncle and godfather Sirius, Harry had family that stood beside him in difficult times. Then also, the family by choice stood beside him as well.
- Enjoy participating in community traditions
YES – Harry immersed himself into the community, traditions, and rituals of wizardry and witchery.
- Felt belonging in high school
YES – From being the youngest seeker on the quidditch team to a Tri-Wizard champion, Harry felt he belonged at Hogwarts. However, there were moments of isolation, but Harry always had his core group of friends.
- Felt supported by friends
YES – Harry had strong friend relationships with Hermione and Ron, and had close relationships with many other individuals at school that supported him (Luna, Neville).
- Having atleast two nonparent adults who show genuine care
YES – Where to begin… Hagrid, Dumbledore, Weasley’s, McGonagall, Snape*, and the list goes on.
*Snape is a complex situation. Yes he provided counter spells, teaching Harry occlumency, and sharing his last memories – all caring. However, he also singled out and picked on Harry, had a disgust for Harry’s dad, and killed Dumbeldore in front of Harry. So from Harry’s vantage point, Snape was probably polarizing.
- Felt safe and protected by an adult at home
SORT OF – When living with the Dursley’s it would be difficult to say that he felt safe and protected. That being said, there were adults watching over him in the community that he was unaware of that, and they were keeping Harry safe. When Harry lived with the Weasley’s, yes, Harry felt safe and protected at home.
Discussion About PCE’s
It’s important to remember that protective childhood experiences are buffers, they don’t counteract adverse childhood experiences. There isn’t research, at this point, that says if you experience three ACE’s you need to experience at least five PCE’s to counteract the effects of the three ACE’s.
That being said, Harry did have five PCE’s with the possibility of two more. It became apparent during the PCE’s that Harry did receive a lot of support from caring friends and caring adults. It is an important discussion to have about the difference between the family you choose and the family you are born in to.
There is a positivity ratio to keep in mind, again no research to support this connecting PCE’s and ACE’s. Individually speaking, the positivity ratio needs to be three positive emotions to every one negative. In relationships, the ratio is five to one.
Positive Psychology (PERMA)
- Positive Emotions: It’s hard to not get the smile or the grin of shock and awe that Harry has each time he encounters magic in his early years. From how to enter Platform 9 and 3/4’s, to Diagon Alley, to tents that are bigger on the inside. However, he does experience great amounts of doubt, hardship, and loss. If he took the positivity ratio test, he may just narrowly come out on the positive side.
- Engagement: Harry was very engaged in his school community. From his first years he was on the house quidditch team, then co-represented his school in the Tri-Wizard championship, became the captain of his quidditch team, and even started his own club called Dumbledore’s Army.
- Relationships: He had many people who offered friendship, but Harry had an ability early on to judge character and developed close and deep relationships with Ron and Hermione. He also had many supportive and positive relationships with adults.
- Meaning: Harry’s meaning was well established before he was even old enough to comprehend that he was “the chosen one” to save witches and wizards from Voldemort. There were times in his adolescents where his calling in life boosted his ego and created a false sense of prestige. This is a difficult one to assess, because did he find meaning organically; or did it come externally, and then eventually become a part of him?
- Accomplishment: The amount of things Harry Potter accomplished in his youth is quite remarkable. Being the youngest seeker, captaining his quidditch team, slaying a snake, and taking on a troll, just to name a few.
Discussion About PERMA
In terms of practicing the five pillars of positive psychology, Harry Potter did really well despite the adversity he was facing. The only concern may be the genuineness of some of the experiences, versus them being setup by well meaning adults around him. While his reaction to the world of magic was genuine, sometimes the adults were the ones trying to overcompensate the engagement, meaning, and accomplishment to keep Harry on the “chosen” path. That being said, who’s parents or teachers don’t do the same but in a smaller context.
Post Traumatic Stress vs Post Traumatic Growth
- Post Traumatic Stress:
- Re-experiencing: He experienced vivid dreams, and at times, debilitating re-experiences while awake.
- Avoidance: Despite terrible experiences at school, he continued to show up. Despite vivid and unsettling dreams of the future, he still went ahead. Avoidance doesn’t appear to be a concern.
- Numbing: Despite the substances, and magic, available, Harry doesn’t engage in much numbing behaviour.
- Hyperarousal: Harry was often in a state of scanning for danger and watching out for his safety. His constant state of hyperarousal made him irritable to be around, and impacted the quality of his sleep.
- Post Traumatic Growth:
- Relationships: Harry formed many positive new relationships during his time at Hogwarts.
- New Possibilities: During his time at Hogwarts, Harry found many opportunities to create new possibilities.
- Personal Strength: He became one of the most powerful wizards in the wizarding world.
- Spiritual Change: Yes, he went from living a muggle lifestyle and beliefs, to believing in a world of magic.
- Appreciation for Life: Harry was always so mesmerized, every year, by the new possibilities available. He also took great care to use non-lethal options towards others and animals. The only exception was spiders that he and Ron drove through and over.
Discussion About Post Traumatic Growth
Let’s use the diagram below to start. In a period of time after a traumatic experience for Harry, he would be further up the stress staircase. It would take less time for him to become emotionally flooded. However, as he managed over time, he went down the staircase, and it would take more time for him to become emotionally flooded.
Here’s the thing about trauma, regardless of how much you work on it, it’s always in maintenance. Re-experiencing can still happen, hopefully less overtime as you work on it. I think it’s fair to say that Harry was more on the side of post traumatic growth, but he was sprinkled with moments of post traumatic stress.
Soothing the Stress Response. As mentioned earlier, Harry would at times be more at an anxious or vigilant state. This means, as the image below says, his survival (emotionally flooded) brain would be over developed. His amygdala is constantly, and understandably, scanning for danger. His amygdala needs to be soothed so that it will surrender it’s control. It is best to practice new skills while calmer, not while maxed. New skills like mindfulness (being present of current feelings), meditation, and taking care of basic needs such as eating, drinking water, positive socializing, and having enough sleep. They all let the brain know it is safe.
Captains of the Brain. Due to the repeated terrible and sometimes traumatic events Harry would experience, his survival brain was being over-utilized compared to the rest of his brain. Luckily Harry had two amazing friends, Ron and Hermione, that would help Harry make decisions when he was emotionally flooded. These friends were the captain of the thinking brain for Harry. This allowed Harry to still make logical decisions when he wasn’t capable independently.
Life Story. Unfortunately Harry’s aunt was not impressed with Harry’s Mom’s, her sisters, life decisions. As a result, she changed the narrative of Harry’s parents life and their death. Harry kept learning new things about his parents as he grew older that were not told to him. These all impacted his identity, knowing who he is and where he belongs. Creating a genogram, or a family history story could have greatly supported Harry’s identity as he grew up.
Space & Time. Frequently when someone is emotionally flooded, we want to pursue them, get them talking, and be with them. Harry at times would be more dangerous as he became emotionally flooded, and would spike in emotion with each attempt at reconnection. On average, it takes about 30-45 minutes for our systems to return to baseline after flooding, and with each spike during the cool down, it takes that much longer to return to baseline. It is OK to say, “I am still around and I will come check on you.” Give them a safe space the size of their bubble, and reconnect when they return to their emotion/relational brain instead of their survival brain.
Attuned Statements. Harry was frequently told he was “the chosen one.” It would be better to say things like “you were really brave being the seeker” or “you showed a lot of courage taking on that creature” or “I am impressed with how you did your homework.” These statements give specific details of what Harry does well, and can anchor his identity of what he is good at.
Harry experienced a lot turmoil in his adolescence. His brain, at times, got stuck in survival mode – which is understandable during war times. He experienced a number of adverse childhood experiences, yet, he also had a lot of support and protective childhood experiences. This allowed him to overcome some of the side effects of those terrible experiences, to transition from a state of traumatic stress to traumatic growth. This is the important piece, healing can always happen. Healing is always possible. Healing is one persons own journey and can start when the individual is ready to heal.