For children who have undergone trauma, transitioning from a caregiving environment to an educational environment, is, at best, a challenge, and at worst, a daily nightmare.
Going to School
In the early years, screaming and clinging children are expected to cease and desist from this behavior as soon as mom is out of sight. So often they don't. Instead, they collapse in a heap on the floor or lash out physically against teachers, caregivers, and other children. Unless the child has trauma-understanding teachers and caregivers, this will begin their descent into an ongoing childhood of one difficulty after another in their school career until they drop out, age out, or barely graduate.
Teachers Are Key to Reaching Children of Trauma
Teachers are not being taught how to work with the children of trauma, and they are under the gun to teach in classrooms full of children whose brains are not ready to learn. Whoever creates policies has ignored the body of knowledge about stress and its effect on our children, which is sabotaging our educational system. The teacher/child relationship makes a difference, one way or another.
I've met great teachers whose love for these children keep them in school even when they struggle to learn. In the shelter of this love, children of trauma find an oasis in the desert of their lives. They still have difficulties, but they find external resources to keep them going. On the other hand, I've met teachers who were not so great, and their judgment of these children was like an arrow in the children's hearts. The children react by coming out fighting for their lives.
We're a society that doesn't understand the relationship between stress experienced by a child and its effect on that child's development. Children in school are misunderstood, and their difficult behaviors and attitudes are judged harshly. Sad for me to say but, in this neck of the woods, even when administrators know that children have been traumatized, they still give "licks" as punishment for misbehavior deemed consciously chosen.
Understanding the Traumatized Child
I don't know when there will be a better understanding that punishing a traumatized child, especially physically, is perpetrating more violence on a small, helpless, already-assaulted body. It's not a teaching or calming interaction, and though it may work temporarily, the damage to the spirit and soul of that child is unseen and immeasurable. It verifies to the child that they are 'bad.'
Peter Levine, who's worked in the field of trauma for over 30 years states, "Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness." His and others' research has demonstrated that trauma happens first at the level of the body, and the emotions and mind follow.
The education system still works at the level of cognition when it comes to traumatized children's behaviors; unknowingly this keeps them stuck in a trauma-reactive system. Educators' lack of understanding that children with these difficult behaviors are reacting from a place of not feeling safe is an unconscious reaction and not a choice. What these children need are environments of understanding adults who can help them navigate to a place of feeling safe and secure. They need to understand this is possible because the same biological system that leads one into a traumatic state due to environmental factors is connected to another biological system that can calm the traumatized one when the environment reflects safety.
A traumatized child is a child who lives in fear, and whose basic belief is that, "The world is not safe. Adults are not safe. I am not safe."
How Can I Help a Traumatized Child?
As you interact with children of trauma, whether you're a parent, caregiver, or educator, ask yourself, "Is what I am about to do with this child teaching them I am a safe person? That they can count on me? Or I'm just another mean-faced, scary, hurtful adult?"
What parents, caregivers, and teachers can do to help children feel safe:
- Understand that a behavior is a consequence of feelings and needs. Trauma-reactive behaviors are indicators that the child is overwhelmed, doesn't feel safe, and can't manage their behavior. (Again this is not a choice.) Look for the child's underlying need: Is there too much stimulation in the room? Do they need to come and sit or stand by you for a moment to help them regulate? Do they need to go to the bathroom, but are having trouble transitioning from the game they are playing? Are they hungry? Are they tired?
- Calm your own emotions about the child's behavior. Children who are aggressive, have an attitude, or are defiant can trigger an adult's reaction regarding issues of respect, compliance, and "proper" behavior. Deal with your issues first, otherwise you'll be triggered into trying to control the child. This will only lead to an escalation of their behavior and you will be in a negative feedback loop (giving negativity only leads to receiving negativity).
- Remember that a child who is emotionally triggered does not have their thinking cap or their ears on. Wait until you and the child are calm. Then have a conversation about what happened. Ask them what happened and then listen to what they have to say. Then talk to them about what they need to do different the next time.
- Have a safe space in the room and teach all your children at home or in the classroom that it is a place they can go to where they won't get in trouble and they can calm themselves down. Many traumatized children are aware of what they are feeling but they don't know what to do and once they are "there," they can't ask. You know that from your own experience. The important thing is to not get to that "there" place. Prevention is helpful with this.
- Quietly, without a lot of words, direct the child away from the situation and have them sit close to you, then go back to what you are doing. This keeps the child from being isolated, which is what a time out does. Instead you're giving them a time in while you go on about your business.
- Sometimes the only thing you can do is the best you can to make sure everyone stays safe. If the child won't leave, have everyone else get away from them, leave the room or go to another part of the playground. This is not the time to try to show who is boss. You'll learn it's not you.
- Maintaining a routine and doing what you say you are going to do will help provide an ongoing repetition of safety.
- Recognize you may not know what triggers a child into traumatizing behaviors. It could be a sight, a sound, something within them like a memory or a felt sense in their body. It could be a loud noise, someone's voice the child perceives as loud. See their reactions as communication of their need for safety and provide that to them.
- Teach yourself and your child breathing exercises, yoga or put on soothing music.
- Understand that traumatized children are more likely to get sick and have other health issues like asthma, headaches, and stomachaches and frequently need to go to the bathroom or have accidents. (I recently had two school age clients diagnosed with stomach migraines by their pediatricians. Never heard of it, but I've worked with many children like them who have ongoing chronic headaches and severe stomach pains). Often these physical symptoms are discounted at home and school because the child is thought to be trying to get out of something or be manipulative. I did not find that to be so. If you study the neurophysiology of trauma you will find ample evidence to change your mind.
Traumatized children, especially those who are school-age, have multiple hurdles to jump and need adults to understand, listen, and hold the child accountable. Parents, teachers, and caregivers should help nurture the child to a calmer place so they can be ready to learn. Children of trauma really want to be like all the other kids: learning, growing, having fun, and being loved.
Soulfull Woman Deborah Chelette-Wilson is a Licensed Professional Counselor, speaker and life coach who has helped many women find that elusive “something missing” in their lives. We are often pulled in so many directions, that it’s difficult to know how to put ourselves on our own To Do list. Deborah offers a 15-minute free life coaching session exclusive to YourTango readers to help you identify what steps you can take to finding a more stress-free and soulfull You.
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