By: Sally Kuykendall
Article #3 of the IBPA Trauma Series
Traumatic experiences influence how a person responds to bullying. One child may lash out. Another child may become anxious or withdrawn. Responses vary by the type and degree of trauma, age, gender, personal resilience, and social support. This article offers practical tips for working with traumatized youth.
Trauma-informed care, also known as the trauma sensitive approach, recognizes trauma as a life-altering experience, avoids exacerbating the injury, and supports recovery. The approach is a paradigm shift where interventions change from confrontation to support. Experts explain this as changing the question from ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’ The approach opens the conversation to acknowledging and validating trauma and developing a plan to support recovery.
The first step of trauma-informed care validates the traumatized individual as someone who had trauma inflicted upon them and continues to carry the burden of injury. This perspective counters messages blaming the victim, often expressed by the perpetrators, society or even the survivors, themselves. Aggressive, self-destructive behaviors are recognized as adaptation to trauma, rather than intentionally malicious actions. The second step of trauma informed care recognizes how flashbacks and triggers may induce behavioral and emotional reactions. Flashbacks are brief episodes where the survivor re-lives the trauma. Triggers are situations or anniversaries that spark memories of the trauma. Both flashbacks and triggers activate the original stress response of fight, flight, or freeze. Teaching the survivor to make connections between past experiences and current emotions can help the survivor to a) understand sudden and unexplained feelings of anger, depression or withdrawal as normal reactions to trauma, b) anticipate situations that trigger unexpected emotions, and c) employ coping strategies to counteract painful memories.
Best practices in trauma-informed care include:
- Observation and connection: From early age, children express themselves through behavior. When a youth acts out, ask ‘what message is this child trying to communicate?’
- Monitor emotional state: Do not try to reason with a child at the peak of a fight, flight or freeze reaction. Move the child to a safe, quiet space, away from the action, encourage deep breathing, and allow time for the body to shift out of survival mode before discussing an incident.
- Create safe spaces: For youth experiencing trauma at home, school may be the only place where they feel safe. The routine of the school day plus connections with peers and supportive adults are a welcome distraction from a chaotic personal life. On the other hand, school may also be perceived as a safe place to release frustrations. Consistent policies and procedures combined with clear communication of any upcoming changes can soothe anxieties and minimize stimulation of the neuroendocrine network.
- Recognize implicit biases: Gender, ethnic and cultural biases inflict sustained, cumulative trauma. Before taking disciplinary action, ask, ‘If this youth was _____ (female, white, affluent or politically connected), would I handle the situation in the same way?’ Avoid adding to cumulative trauma.
- Encourage trust: Avoid interactions that humiliate or intimidate. Model respect. Thoroughly explain rules and procedures and why certain actions are being taken. Check in with the child when the incident and any disciplinary action has passed.
- Build support: Connect isolated youth with supportive peers, teachers, and staff.
- Empower: Communicate on eye level. Come out from behind the desk. Encourage the survivor to self-monitor triggers and self-soothe in positive and constructive ways.
- Foster courage and hope: Encourage youth to develop healthy activities to cope with the trauma. Build strength, resilience and hope for the future.
Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration describes trauma-informed care as one that realizes the impact of trauma on an individual, recognizes individual signs and symptoms of trauma, responds by integrating the knowledge of trauma into policies and procedures, and strives to avoid retraumatizating the survivor.
Sally Kuykendall is mother and stepmother of three sons and two daughters. She studied bullying in schools for nine years before writing the reference book, Bullying: Health and Medical Issues Today. She has been cited by many news agencies and served as content consultant on the public television show Beyond the Bully (KSMQ, Rochester, MN).
Suggested resources are:
Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. Available at: https://store.samhsa.gov/product/SAMHSA-s-Concept-of-Trauma-and-Guidance-for-a-Trauma-Informed-Approach/SMA14-4884.html
National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Available at: https://www.nctsn.org/
A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens by Kenneth R. Ginsburg
Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences by Victoria E. Romano, Ricky Robertson, and Amber Warner.