Healing from prolonged trauma and toxic stress is a complex process. As mentioned in our last article, trauma has a lasting impact on the brain and its growth- children who have experienced trauma are most negatively affected in their ability to cope with triggers, form secure relationships, and self-regulate.
Triggers are defined as situations, noises, or people that cause a survivor to experience flashbacks of traumatic events, often inciting a bodily response. Bodily responses may include rapid heart rate, stomachaches, headaches, panic attacks, difficulty breathing, etc. Trauma often lives in the body, thus a bodily reaction to trauma is common for many survivors.
Self-regulation is key to helping survivors deal with triggers and heal- children who have experienced trauma often exhibit an inability to calm down in moments of stress, as trauma causes damage to the areas of the brain that control self-regulation and impulses.
Secure and stable relationships with caring adults play an important role in developing a survivor’s self-regulation. The attachment a child has with their primary caregiver may be damaged by toxic stress from situations such as inconsistent care, physical and emotional abuse, or other forms of violence.
In order to heal to the symptoms of trauma (AKA Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD), we must respond to each area where the child is negatively impacted. At the Illumination Foundation Children’s Resource Centers (CRC) we help children heal by utilizing Trauma-Informed Practices for Schools (TIPS)1. Trauma-Informed Care is a central shift in mental health treatment that switches the question from “What is wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?”
Beginning with this state of mind when working with individuals who have experienced trauma changes our perspective from a place of judgment to one of compassion and empathy. When children enter our programs, we paint a full picture of their life experiences. As we work to provide services, we implement TIPS through the following components: safety, self-regulation, and connections in response to the areas where children are most adversely effected- relationships, self-regulation, and triggers.
Staff at the CRC strive to form meaningful bonds with the children in our programs. For a child like Katrina, this may mean taking interest in her daily life. Because she has experienced a lot of instability, it provides consistency for her on a daily basis, and more importantly overtime.
Staff at the CRC always aim to provide an emotionally safe environment. This means working with children without judgment, and letting children know explicitly that staff are safe adults- they can talk to them about any issues they may be experiencing. Safety also means being aware of a child’s triggers. In Katrina’s case, she is triggered by loud noises, so staff will ensure that she is aware and comfortable when an activity involves yelling.
Staff at the CRC continually implement ways to help our students practice self-regulating through close counseling, art therapy, and recreation. Students are given breaks when during homework time to aid concentration; Sitting for long periods of time with sustained attention is difficult for many of kids, and even more so for children who are trauma survivors. All of these activities can help a child like Katrina acquire tools to self-regulate. When things escalate, we employ activities that involve mindfulness, such as mental breaks, yoga or breathing exercises to help children develop coping mechanisms.
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Director of Children’s Programs, Illumination Foundation
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