- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
#3 Trauma-Informed Ministries: The Hurting Child (Republished)
Republished as resources to accompany the soon to be published book, Trauma in the Pews: Impact on Faith and Spiritual Practices, August 23, 2023.
During my recent webinar, How to Be a Healing Church, attendees asked great questions. It was impossible to answer all of them. I stated that I would blog and elaborate on the list of practical trauma-informed practices along with the questions. This is the third blog of the series (the first and second).
Several questions addressed how to help children who have experienced various forms of trauma. I have attempted to condense these into one long question:
What advice or tools/practical suggestions can you give for proactively helping/working with children/young adults who are or have experienced trauma?
It is important to first say that trauma comes in many forms (family dysfunction, accidents—natural or otherwise, death/loss, pre-birth/birth, entering/leaving foster care, adoption, medical procedures). All these forms of trauma create responses in the body. Our society has been remiss in addressing this fact, often shaming ways the body realizes trauma (crying, shaking, resting, etc.) The following authors address ways to release trauma created by many causes: Dr. Dan Siegel, Dr. Peter A. Levine, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, and Dr. Bruce Perry. (links at https://www.janyne.org/resources )
Part of my mission has been to help adults understand the inner world of a traumatized child. My second book, Jeannie’s BRAVE Childhood: Behavior and Healing through the Lens of Attachment and Trauma is a deep dive into the many ways my amazing little mind and body survived—and what it took to heal from all the layers I built around my pain. It is my best effort at helping adults understand what I explain next.
The following five paradigm shifts explain exactly who I found when I began to unravel my own story. Without any help, this hurting child hid inside of me for a lifetime. I needed to release the trauma and have many conversations with adults who understood the internal worlds children create as a result of trauma—and the behaviors that result. Without shifting our understanding of behavior from more traditional views to this trauma-informed lens, the strategies (next blog) make little sense.
Behavior is always a communication of an unmet need. For children who have experienced trauma, feeling safe is an essential need which is difficult to meet. Their brains are always on high alert and they lack healthy coping skills to regulate their own emotions. Anger is a cover for fear—because the world is a dangerous place.
Attempting to control undesirable behaviors acts as a trigger for (fight/flight) or shutting down (freeze/dissociation). Remaining calm, though difficult, will help the child to return to a regulated state (no one ever calmed down by being told to calm down.)
Survival-based coping skills are exactly that—skills. All of the unhealthy ways children cope (such as lying, stealing, manipulating) are learned strategies used to meet their own needs in the absence of adults who were capable of doing so (abusive or disconnected).
Traumatized children believe everyone feels the way they do. Doesn’t everyone know that a smile can mean danger or not watching every facial expression on an adult’s face is essential to avoiding danger? Trust is nearly impossible, and betrayal and abandonment are an assumed part of relationships. No, they do not trust you.
Internalized shame results in most children believing they are the cause of their abuse. Many are driven by the overwhelming desire to prevent further abuse by being exactly what others want/expect them to be. It is almost impossible to develop a true sense of self or develop healthy self-care/regulation strategies. Failure at the impossible task of pleasing everyone results in an endless list of mental health concerns (anxiety, depression, addictions, etc.).
Can you make some practical suggestions for helping while not enabling or inadvertently encouraging destructive behaviors?
I am not exactly sure if this question was for adults or children, but once again, there is little difference. I do understand the question though and am often faced with this dilemma when trying to help others unwind themselves from the shame that will prevent them from healing.
The truth is that almost every trauma-related behavior exhibited by children or adults has been shamed by someone in an attempt to not “inadvertently encourage destructive behaviors.” Yes, these are unhealthy behaviors! They should not be excused/accepted, but there is a better way.
The key is understanding where the behavior began. It may not be evident at first but most of the time the cause is in a painful childhood that lacked healthy coping skills. That is why it is essential to help children (all children) learn and practice self-regulation skills (topic for another blog). But in the absence of this opportunity, shaming the adult versions doesn’t help.
I leave you with an example. The adults who talk with me fully understand when they have some type of unhealthy coping skill (excessive drinking, smoking, porn, or the socially accepted workaholic, shopping, over-eating). They often confess them to me right out of the gate as I encourage them to go to therapy.
The question I ask: Do you remember when that started? What need did it meet? They usually know and tell me that it helped them cope. And I respond, “Then you should hug it and tell it thank you for getting you to today. But we both know it is harming you now and you need to heal what caused you to need it in the first place.”
We can do the same for children. It is harder because their brains are not cognitively at a place to analyze their own choices very well. But (after their lid is no longer flipped), if you ask them how throwing the book across the room helped them (or yelled, screamed, slammed doors, threw things, ran, etc.), they may say it helped them feel better. Yes, it did until they realize how out of control they were. But, it was the release they needed. Once they begin to identify the feeling inside that needs releasing, you can begin to teach them healthier releases.
It is no different for adults, but it is important to realize that simply knowing where it started doesn’t indicate healing. Even an overwhelmingly joyful and spiritually liberating experience doesn’t heal the changes in the brain caused by trauma. Trauma-related behaviors can continue to plague the individual and feel like spiritual defeat. The hope is in healing!