by Julia Steiny
Out there — in schools, playgrounds, pediatricians’ offices, neighborhoods and summer camps — are traumatized kids. Some have witnessed violence in the home, suffered the death of a parent or loved one, lost their home in a fire, or been sexually abused. Others belong to a culture that has such harsh child-rearing norms that they’re routinely abused verbally or physically. Some have alcoholic or drug-addled parents or live in chaotic or scary homes. Others bounced from home to home, or even country to country, for lots of reasons.
Most stupidly, some kids have been so coddled and protected from adversity that they’re crushed by events that resilient kids can overcome.
So, for various reasons, lots of the kids wriggling around in our worlds have experienced trauma. They don’t wear signs announcing the state of their inner worlds, except when they act out with the anti-social behavior we all find maddening. They can seem utterly normal until something triggers festering memories and feelings, driving the kid’s behavior or health kablooey.
Trauma-informed environments have five core concepts.
In last week’s column, Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, Ph.D., taught us about what trauma is. This week she’ll help us understand how to create environments that are prepared to handle traumatized kids and to prevent triggering trauma or escalating a boil-over.
1. First, and most importantly, assume trauma. No matter how “nice” your school or neighborhood, assume it’s there. Paccione-Dyszlewski says, “Think in terms of basic infection control. Use universal precautions. We assume the presence of infection, so we wash our hands.” One trauma-informed version of hand-washing is to delete the idea that there are “bad” kids. Instead, work together on strengthening the relationships among adults and kids in your institution. Kids will only care about how their behavior affects others when they feel cared for themselves.
Then, Paccione-Dyszlewski says, “If trauma is disclosed, you already have a gentle environment that can work with professionals to help the healing. If it’s not disclosed, healing can happen on its own. And if there never was trauma in the first place, the child still has a gentle environment.”
Note that “gentle” is the operant concept. Nurturing, kind. She didn’t say this, but I suggest that every effort to eliminate yelling at the kids is a great place to start. As one student said to a teacher in a mediation, “Mistah, my step-father yells at me all the time and you sound just like him. Makes me want to hit you.” It’s hard, but we need to keep our tempers in check. Yelling with even a hint of aggression can trigger trauma, and it certainly doesn’t model pro-social behavior.
2. “Trauma is global. It affects any aspect of a person’s functioning.” The effects show up in a kid’s physical, mental, behavioral or social health.
Paccione-Dyszlewski walks us through considerable brain science, but the bottom line — especially for you school-based people — is that trauma stops a kid’s ability to learn. They’re surviving, that’s all. Most obviously with little kids, trauma creates developmental delays, early lags in language and cognitive function, and difficulty maintaining attention and concentration. Emotional trauma affects all systems very much like a traumatic brain injury.
3. “Trauma affects relationships, and dramatically.” All kids need to learn two things: emotional regulation (managing their feelings and behavior) and trust. If there’s no one they trust, they brim over with unmet needs. Only major interventions to help them forge a relationship will prevent them from announcing their emotional poverty with a lot of illness or behavior that gets negative attention.
4. “Trauma can be treated.” When a kid is in full-blown crisis, insurance might pay for so many outpatient visits or so much hospitalization. But professional services can only be part of the healing network of relationships that a kid needs over time. I wrote some months ago about inspirational Leeds, England, which is targeting City efforts and resources to helping families, schools and neighborhoods become healthy enough to manage their own conflicts and issues. Leeds’ leadership wouldn’t exactly say they’re becoming a trauma-informed city, but I think Paccione-Dyszlewski would. They’re investing in strong family relationships within a gentle, city-wide network of support.
5. And lastly, “trauma-informed institutions have a caregiver focus. Pediatricians, childcare workers, teachers — trauma affects who we are.” Being around trauma is hard. But institutions can become traumatizing themselves. Administrators need to model how adults take good care of one another or they won’t be helpful to kids.
Paccione-Dyszlewski wistfully notes that elsewhere, in some countries far more trauma-ridden than ours, stronger communities work more purposely on developing what she calls “common language.” Speaking a language of social rules and conventions helps all people, young and old, remember how to be good to one another.
Relationships are the universal precaution for trauma. Institutions need to take note.