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May is Foster Care and Mental Health Awareness month, and in the past couple weeks, I’ve written about the impact of trauma on infants and on young children, and how trauma that occurs in the context of relationships can only be healed within healthy relationships. At A Home Within, we start conversations with the community with the simple mantra “Relationships Matter Because Relationships Heal.” It might seem like common sense, but when it comes to children who have experienced repeated trauma in their short lives, it can be hard to hold so simple an idea in mind. By definition, relationships occur over time, growing and gathering strength as they navigate ups and downs, challenges and triumphs. One of the insidious things about trauma, though, is that relationships – the very nexus of children’s social, emotional and behavioral development – are too often a source of confusion and challenge.

As infants grow to toddlers, and young children head to school, their connections with caring adults become ever more numerous and more diverse. Events such as starting school bring children into regular contact with the larger world. Friendships become increasingly important. Social skills outside of the family become the focus as friendships become more and more important.  Children in this age group also begin to compare themselves to other kids – to see how they “measure” up.  This is a critical time for children to develop confidence in all areas of life, especially socially.

As children enter the school-age years, they begin to show signs of a budding independence. This period of growth is also marked by the active pursuit of, and genuine appreciation for, new relationships. Parents, or primary caregivers, continue to be the most important people in the child’s life, but relationships with peers become increasingly important. In fact, the appearance of a “best friend” is frequently a feature of the school-age years. Other significant, and often defining, characteristics of this phase of development are children’s capacity to control their urges and conform to an appropriate standard of behavior without direct supervision. Collectively, this is known as self-regulation.

Children who have been traumatized see the world as a frightening and dangerous place. When childhood trauma is not resolved, this fundamental sense of fear and helplessness carries over into relationships. This often causes confusion about relationships in general.  Boundaries are often blurred due to the fact their personal boundaries were not honored. It is important for adults to notice when children need help and offer it without being asked and to continue to make offers even when help is rejected.  This can be difficult because traumatized children often do not send clear cues about whether they secretly want help or really want to be left alone.

Even though traumatized children often mistrust adults, it is important that they have ample opportunity to spend time, initially in small doses, with adults.  Teachers, coaches, mentors, and other adults in the lives of school age children all have opportunities to support their emotional development by engaging them in conversations, attending important school events, and creating interesting outings as demonstrations of interest and care.

When caring adults learn to recognize the signs of trauma and learn to respond in ways that promote healing, they are empowered to turn routine conversations into opportunities for healing. Consider just three simple examples:

  • Traumatized children often don’t trust their intuitions.  It is important for them to learn to read and trust physical sensations as messages from their bodies. I can be very helpful for a trusted adult to talk with children about the possible reasons for a stomachache – whether it be the flu, easting too much or not enough, or feeling worried.  The more children become aware and can trust their bodies messages the more they will value their own physical well being.
  • Traumatized children can become confused at the idea of down time.  Sitting quietly may trigger anxiety as if it is the calm before a storm.  Capturing a time when a child with a history of trauma is quiet and reinforcing quiet time not only provides comfort for a child but also demonstrates the usefulness of taking time to expand one’s sense of calm.  It is important for children to understand that their bodies need time to rest and relax and that this is something they can do to help themselves.
  • School age children often engage in lengthy conversations about “accident” and “on purpose” in addition to “accidental-on-purpose.”  Adults can use these words to help children understand the care behind enforcing rules to protect their safety.  A deeper explanation by a trusted adult can help traumatized children understand what real accidents are and the hurtful nature of purposeful abuse which expands on notions of what good physical boundaries are and what are not.

Jared, a 10-year-old boy who witnessed domestic violence between his parents for years has finally been removed from his home and lives with his grandmother whose first language is not English.  She and Jared are unable to discuss much about his experience, though she can care for his basic needs and is kind to him.  At school Jared often picks fights with other kids when he feels left out or ignored.  Casual glances or curious stares from other children are often misinterpreted, leaving him feeling he has no friends at school or in the neighborhood. Jared’s heightened sensitivity to social cues and his inability to use words rather than act out suggests his emotional development has been interrupted.

When Jared’s teacher recognized that recess was the most emotionally charged part of the day for him, she helped him anticipate and prepare for a potentially difficult situation. Jared’s teacher began “check ins” with him each day before recess. She helped him to think about how he was feeling before he got to the playground. She learned that he was often frightened and worried that the other kids wouldn’t let him play with them. With that information she was able to help Jared and Emile, another somewhat shy and socially awkward child, begin playing together. After several weeks she and Jared decided that weekly check-ins would be enough. The check ins allowed him to begin to recognize and talk about his feelings, which will eventually help him to develop a broader emotional vocabulary, more self-regulation and confidence. In the meantime, the teacher created an area of emotional safety by pairing Jared with Emile.

Jared’s story illustrates how a teacher can use an understanding of trauma to frame her understanding of behavior and use an intentionally relationship-based strategy to address both his internal and social needs. As Jared bonds with Emile and experiences recess as a time of fun and friendship, the anxiety and conflict that originally cued his teacher can be expected to decline, freeing him to enjoy and benefit from recess, developing self-confidence and skills in problem solving, planning, cooperation, and exploration, not to mention just having fun.

Every day in the life of a school-age child is filled with learning, growth, and development. We all know that every child is unique, and the pervasive effects of trauma can make the needs of each equally unique. Learning to recognize and understand trauma allows us to turn day-to-day challenges into opportunities for healing as well.