At a recent conference, nearly 600 attendees learned painful lessons about trauma’s effect on the young, developing brain. Dr. James Greer, psychiatrist and Clinical Professor at Brown Medical School, and his colleague Robert Hagberg, LICSW, presented their research and their experiences with effective treatment.
Rhode Island’s Family Court hosted the two-day event designed to focus on improving the circumstances of the most obviously traumatized, troubled and vulnerable children, those whom the State had to remove from their homes. Conference participants came from the juvenile justice system, schools, social services and child-protective services. The point was to help everyone better understand the full plight of these kids, so agencies would collaborate more closely on taking better care of them.
Greer and Hagberg are principals in the Mind and Body Project, which treats trauma with physical techniques, including yoga. Their presentation repeatedly made the point that trauma is body based, not verbal. As therapists, they help kids use physical cues and exercises to control the effects of their own trauma. With detailed graphs and pictures, the therapist/researchers taught the audience how trauma wires itself into the brain’s architecture and becomes part of a kid’s automatic functioning.
One of their stories was about a kid I’ll call Raffi. For years his impulsive behavior has gotten him in trouble at school. Using a physical technique, he digs his fingers into his legs as he walks down the halls of his high school to concentrate on getting to English class.
But in the crowded hallway, some clod bumps him accidentally and wham, Raffi throws a punch. When administrators confront him about his actions, he honestly doesn’t remember what happened. At least he has no words for it. Trauma doesn’t think in words; it just reacts. So Raffi’s not just in trouble, but big trouble. Again.
The fact that this kid has trauma, “in no way excuses the behavior,” Greer says emphatically. “If they cannot control their behavior, they can’t live in the world with rest of us.” What they need are “corrective experiences,” which is to say reassuring, healthy interactions with caring adults who can, over time, help the kid trust that he can take a moment to think before reacting.
Greer explains, “Experience in childhood organizes the developing brain. Experience in adulthood alters the organized brain. And corrective experience does not happen in the office. It happens in home and at school.”
To me, the therapists’ “corrective experiences” translate as teaching or re-teaching. No one breaks a bad habit without learning and practicing a healthy habit that can take its place. So when it comes to social norms and handling emotions, traumatized kids need remedial education. Greer and Hagberg concede that this corrective or re-teaching work can be painstaking.
But if patient re-teaching works with traumatized kids, why wouldn’t it help all misbehaving kids learn new social habits?
As the presenters spoke, the typical behavior of their traumatized kids seemed for all the world like the obnoxious behavior we generally associate with any mouthy, uncooperative trouble-maker. So, of all youthful miscreants, what proportion is traumatized? And if not trauma, what are the other sources of the insulting, aggressive and uncontrollable behavior that has been flooding schools in recent years? Are there any?
Greer and Hagberg describe the three ways a kid’s brain becomes mis-wired and thus anti-social:
First is the obvious trauma of exposure to danger or harm. This would include natural disasters, accidental disasters like car accidents, or intentional harm like being beaten. Also, the threat of such harm is itself traumatizing. Hagberg says, “A sense of threat does more neurological damage than actual physical danger.” Gunshot-ridden neighborhoods are naturally threatening and thus traumatizing.
Second is the vicarious exposure to threat or harm. Increasing numbers of kids are growing up with parents who themselves have some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. They’ve survived war or the sorts of danger mentioned above. Kids pick up on the chaos in the parents’ inner world and become “disregulated” or chaotic themselves.
Lastly, and in some ways least obvious, is what Greer and Hagberg call “enduring neglect, which produces developmental trauma.” When Mom or the primary caregiver doesn’t respond appropriately or regularly, the child gets screwy messages about how to get her needs met. In our epidemic of disintegrating families, children often suffer an “absence of appropriate care.” Teen moms, for example, are often too immature to establish nurturing structures and routines.
But wait! That describes the whole range of kids who regularly misbehave. Even some middle-class kids are growing up with parents who want to be friends instead of setting limits and rules. Kids need, as Hagberg says, “structure, structure, structure.” But, he notes, “‘discipline’ can be a loaded word. Kids need structure and routine in appropriately developmental ways.”
The traditional approach to discipline, just punishing the kid, removes the unwanted behavior more quickly than providing corrective experiences. But punishment just reinforces the negative neuropathways already etched by traumatic experience. So misunderstanding and reacting badly to kids’ maddening behavior is likely just making it worse.
Hagberg and Greer made a compelling argument that everyone across all child-serving sectors needs to understand and to be responsible for re-teaching trauma-driven misbehavior.
Otherwise, I’m thinking, welfare rolls and prison populations will continue to soar.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.