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Steps to Supporting a Child Experiencing Stress and Trauma

Looking through a Trauma Informed Lens Part 3

Stress and trauma can significantly impact a child’s health, development and wellbeing and can influence how they interact with others and their environment.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series on “Looking through a Trauma Informed Lens” identifies how childhood experiences of stressful and/or trauma can activate the survival brain. When this happens, the child’s brain shifts to a heightened state of survival and instead of growing and learning, the child’s responses to life experiences is focused on staying safe and meeting their basic needs.

Recognizing and responding to a child’s behaviour through a trauma-informed lens can change how we, as adults interact; what we say, and what we do. 

The steps to responding with a trauma-informed lens are purposeful, based on how the brain operates when stress and trauma overwhelm a child.

Understand your own feelings

Take a moment to look at your own responses to challenging situations. What are your feelings and how are those feelings modelled to others? Situations can be stressful and sometimes overwhelming, particularly when dealing with challenging behaviour that happens on a regular basis. Understanding your own feelings and adapting your responses is the first step.

Recognize FEAR

If the child is experiencing stress and trauma, fear is at the root of their actions and behaviour. The survival brain is in charge and the emotional brain has been activated. The child’s behaviour is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

Ask yourself: 

  • Are they scared?
  • Is their survival brain in charge?
  • What can I do to calm their emotions and get their thinking brain back online?

Model calm and reassurance

Take a moment to stop and breathe, then decide what to do next. Our own actions could potentially escalate or de-escalate the situation, depending on what we do next.

Go to the child

Get physically close while respecting the child’s personal space.  They will likely not be able to come to you if you call them. They will not be able to follow through in this moment because the survival brain is in charge.  

Critical things to remember at this time:

  • Be Silent. This is very hard as we are used to talking and going into problem solving right away.  However, if the child’s survival brain is activated, they are not an available listener in that moment. Talking before helping the child to calm will only escalate the situation.
  • Be completely present and available.  Pay attention to the child without distraction.
  • Convey warmth and reassurance through your body language.  Consider your body posture, facial expression and tone of voice. Is it open, warm, inviting and comforting or closed and harsh? Find a calm quiet area and position yourself alongside the child in a non-threatening way, at eye level.
  • Cultural Considerations. There are differences in meaning and intention when it comes to non-verbal communication across cultures.  It is important to understand the child from a cultural perspective and be mindful to avoid miscommunication.

The survival brain and the child’s fight – flight – freeze responses will be reduced when the child feels safe and calm. The child’s thinking brain  will turn back on..

Critical things to remember at this time:

  • Do not focus on talking, problem solving or make expectations. The child cannot take on tasks or directions at this time and may perceive this as threatening, adding feeling of being overwhelmed.
  • Do not ask for investment in the outcome. This is not the time to be thinking of solving this situation or what the child is going to have to do. 
  • Use calming techniques that help to regulate the nervous system. Calming techniques, such as deep breathing, will help to keep you calm and will be a model for the child as well.

Connect with the child

You may begin to notice the child beginning to relax, signalling that they are beginning to feel safe. Their thinking brain is coming back. You may start to see that they have more eye contact, breathing is slower and steadier, and challenging behaviours have decreased. This is the moment when you must connect and reassure them that you are there for support.

Important things to say at this time:

  • “I am here.” “I am with you.”
  • “You are safe.”
  • “Your feelings matter to me.”

You must be sincere, otherwise the survival brain will not believe that it is truly safe and this interaction may be perceived as another threat, which could re-escalate a survival response.  Listening and acknowledging feelings with empathy helps the child feel safe and understood. 

Reason with the child

Once the child is calm and you recognize that the thinking brain is activated, you can begin to have a conversation with the child.  Processing and problem solving comes AFTER calming and connecting.  How you do this is important, using Dr. Dan Hughes’s “Two-hand Approach”; connection and then correction.

Example:

Connection: “On one hand you have good reasons for getting upset when (insert what happened).”

Correction: “On the other hand it’s not okay to (insert behavior or action here). Let’s find another way to handle that situation that serves you better. I’m here every step of the way to figure that out with you.”

This approach validates emotions expressed when the survival brain was in charge. It addresses how those big emotions did not help the child in the moment and what they can do instead to be able to handle a situation in a more positive way moving forward. 

Help the child to re-do and repair

Providing the opportunity to re-do and repair is an important step in helping the child move to using their thinking brain.

Re-do: This is an opportunity to immediately practice a replacement skill, one that may lead to a better outcome. It lays the groundwork for a skill to be tried and take root. When you help the child to practice a new skill and praise their attempts, it will help to increase their confidence and provide a more positive relationship. 

Repair: This is about fixing a situation.  For example: cleaning up if a mess was made, or apologizing to a peer if hurt was caused. You will need to match the repair expectation to the developmental level of the child instead of their chronological age. Remember that children who have experienced stress and trauma often present as developmentally younger. 

The point of “repair” is to show the child that they can come back from a challenging situation and that you will support them to do so.  This can be scary, especially if they are left alone to perform expectations that are above their ability. This may lead to re-escalation. If we meet a child where they are at, with appropriate expectations and support, they can successfully repair.

Important things to say at this time:

  • “It was really hard to (name the repair action) wasn’t it?”
  • “You must be proud of yourself for (name the repair action).”
  • “I am proud of you.”

It is important to engage in re-do and repair alongside the child to help demonstrate the skill you want to teach, build a trusting relationship, and provide support and encouragement during the learning process.

Move forward

When a situation is over, it is important to move forward with the activities of the day. The supportive, nurturing connection with you needs to continue, however the child needs to see and understand there is closure and a fresh start.  

Remember…

Be patient as each step may take time. You may need to fight the urge to start talking and problem solve. At times it will be difficult to find the time to work through each step.

When things do not seem to be working, think back on what happened and what actions you took. Be consistent, repeat the steps and give time for the skills to take root. Each child is unique and will need a thoughtful approach.

You will know if your strategy is working by observing the duration, frequency and intensity of each challenging situation.  Does it take as long as it used to for the child to return to calm?  Is it happening as often as it used to? Is the situation as intense as it used to be?  

Focusing on building your child’s skills and connecting with you in positive ways, even in difficult times, can help your child be more successful. Thoughtful and supportive responses on the part of the adults in a child’s life can help them learn how to manage the stress and trauma they face.


Written by Amanda Boyd, BA, CYC, CTP; Behaviour Consultant, Lumenus Community Services, Every Child Belongs

References:

Hughes, D.A., Golding, KS, Hudson, J (2019) Healing relational trauma with attachment-focused interventions: Dyadic developmental psychotherapy with children and families. WW Norton

Perry, B. D. (2006). Applying Principles of Neurodevelopment to Clinical Work with Maltreated and Traumatized Children: The Neurosequential Brainl of Therapeutics. In N. B. Webb (Ed.), Social Work Practice with Children and Families. Working with traumatized youth in child welfare (p. 27–52). Guilford Press.

Purvis, KB, Cross DR, Dansereau DF, Parris SR. (2013) Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI): A Systemic Approach to Complex Developmental Trauma.  Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3877861/

Siegel, DJ(2010) Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Book.  Excerpt of: Hand Brainl of The Brain retrieved June 15, 2020 from https://www.psychalive.org/minding-the-brain-by-daniel-siegel-m-d-2/

Van Der Kolk, B  (2015)  The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books