Kids and Trauma
Trauma. If you have been following the KHUSA Facebook page, you have probably seen this word multiple times in the past few weeks. But, when you hear the word ‘trauma’, what is your impression? Perhaps you think it is the psychological ‘buzz-word’ of the decade? Or, having been through some trauma, you are deeply impacted by its memories? In any case, it has been my experience that understanding trauma shapes the way you think and act in any relationship with children. In my next several blogposts, I hope to share with you some basic information about trauma and how you can integrate trauma-informed care into your mentoring relationship. As a counselor with more than twenty years of experience, I promise you… it matters.
First, it is important to begin with an acknowledgement of the Creator of all things. The more I learn about trauma, the more I am amazed with the way in which human body works. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful; I know that full well.” Psalm 139: 13 What a powerful reminder that God intricately designed our minds and bodies to reflect his image. So, whether we are considering the impact of a ‘cortisol flood’ on a developing brain, or the ‘amygdala’ gone haywire caused by stress and trauma, we can rest assured that God created protective mechanisms that allow our bodies to fully reflect his purpose.
With that framework in mind, let’s consider a proper definition for Trauma. For me, it is helpful to combine the thoughts of a few different authors from the American Psychological Association, the Children’s Traumatic Stress Network, and Lenore Terr (a pioneer in the field of trauma). The following bullet points based on a combination of thoughts from those authors illustrate the important elements of Trauma…
- It is a response to a negative external event or series of events
Many kids endure various experiences that lead to a Trauma response. These experiences might include: physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, neglect, death or loss of a loved one, witnessing domestic violence, automobile or other serious accidents, life threatening health situations, witnessing or experiencing community violence, witnessing police activity or having a close relative incarcerated, natural disasters, acts or threats of terrorism, or living in chronically chaotic environment in which housing and financial resources are not consistently available. (The last item is often referred to as ‘toxic stress’. We will learn more about this in future posts.) Ultimately, it is important to remember that Trauma can be caused by a single event or a number of events.
- It is a type of damage to the mind
Research and brain imaging studies have shown that Trauma changes the way the brain functions. It can hijack the system for emotion regulation or interfere with cognitive processes. In fact, some research reveals that Trauma can be responsible for chronic maladies including heart disease, obesity, and even diabetes. Trauma can have a significant impact on the health and functioning of kids.
- It surpasses a child’s ordinary coping skills
Though our brains and bodies are ‘hardwired’ with the ability to tolerate various amounts of stress, a Trauma experience exceeds the ability of those natural mechanisms. Consequently, the brain may lose the capacity to connect speech or language to the experience, or a person may experience nightmares or flashbacks related to the situation.
- It renders a child temporarily helpless and unable to integrate the emotions involved with that experience
You may have heard of the stress response that includes ‘fight, flight, or freeze.’ A Trauma experience and reaction can rob a child of any sense of control. This being said, it is important to allow trauma survivors to make simple choices, empowering them to feel a greater sense of control. (We will learn more about this in future posts.)
- It results in intense fear, horror, or helplessness
The emotions related to trauma can be very intense. In fact, on a scale of one to ten, emotions related to Trauma might measure at eleven… or even twenty. Common feelings related to trauma can include rage, terror, sadness, disappointment, horror, or numbness.
- Behavior may be dysregulated, disorganized or agitated
A child’s behavior following Trauma can be confusing, however, please remember that ALL BEHAVIOR IS COMMUNICATION. Kids often do not have words to express their thoughts and feelings, so they communicate through their behavior. Though these behaviors can be frustrating, it is helpful to see past the behavior and discern the message they are trying to send.
Now that we have a sense for what Trauma is, perhaps we can consider what can be done. In the next several posts, we will continue to visit the concept of Trauma to learn strategies that will equip you to be Trauma-Informed mentors. As we do so, I wish to express my deepest gratitude for the care that you give. You are making a significant impact. And let me leave you with this thought: Research tells us that the most significant factor that helps kids heal from traumatic experiences is a positive, healthy relationship with one adult. Yes, that’s right, YOU.