Understanding Trauma
April 5, 2022

Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter one’s sense of security.  As mentors, understanding the effects of trauma is important in becoming a positive advocate for your mentee.  Emotionally traumatic events such as witnessing a parent’s arrest, being physically removed from home to live with a relative or an unfamiliar foster parent, not knowing where the parent is, or when they might return, are all experiences that can leave a child more vulnerable to stress.  Parental Incarceration is a traumatic event that scientists and doctors have labeled as one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs.  Experiencing ACEs in childhood can lead to permanent impacts on physical and emotional health and quality of life.

The impact emotional trauma has on an individual’s brain can manifest in behaviors that seem illogical and difficult to understand. An emotionally traumatic experience causes the brain to enter into a state of fear-related activation or survival mode: fight, flight or freeze (dissociate). This survival response is hard to unlearn. As a result, when someone who has experienced an emotionally traumatic event in the past has been triggered, their reaction may be impulsivity, withdrawal, forgetfulness, sadness, dissociation, agitation, opposition, or “deer in the headlights” stare.  These behaviors and responses can be sudden, confusing and seem out of place.

The good news is that the brain is very “elastic” and can change in response to positive experiences. Interventions that restore a sense of safety and control are very important to promoting resilience, or the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences.  Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance to help bolster a person’s resilience. 

By learning to understand kids who have been through trauma we can better position ourselves to support them and help them build the resilience they need to face the challenges in their life.

Below are tips from Caelan Kuban Soma, Detroit based clinical director of the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children, a program of the Starr Global Learning Network

Kids who have experienced trauma aren’t trying to push your buttons.

  • Kids who have been through trauma worry about what’s going to happen next. Routine structure can help. Knowing their mentor will come each week, and knowing what to expect from them can help.
  • Even if the situation doesn’t seem that bad to you, it’s how the child feels that matters. Being non-judgmental is key.
  • Trauma isn’t always associated with violence. We know that a trauma our mentees share is being suddenly separated from their parent due to incarceration or deportation.
  • You don’t need to know exactly what caused the trauma to be able to help. Focus on the feelings and don’t worry about the facts.
  • Kids who experience trauma need to feel they’re good at something and can influence the world. Helping them create and achieve goals, no matter how small can help. Asking them to teach you how to play a game or complete a project can build that sense of competency that can also provide them with a sense of mastery and control. Instead of telling them they are good at something, give them the opportunity to show you.
  • There is a direct connection between stress and learning. High levels of stress, especially when it is prolonged, makes learning tough. Give them a stress free escape during your visit where they don’t have to focus on learning. They may find when they go back to class in the afternoon they are better able to focus.
  • Self-regulation can be a major challenge for students suffering from trauma. Taking that break from studying, or even a break from the worries they carry with them by spending time with you, being able to be a kid and just have fun, can help.
  • It is ok to ask kids point-blank what you can do to help them make it through the day. Your mentee might tell you they just don’t feel like talking today. Or maybe they will ask to do something more active than usual.

Most importantly, someone who has experienced trauma needs to feel safe.   The relationship built between a mentor and a mentee can create that safety. By being a constant, reliable, and accepting presence, you are an anchor for your mentee. By using affirmative self-statements, encouraging their efforts, and acknowledging your mentee’s feelings, you are creating happy experiences that can contribute to a healthy brain chemistry and enhance their emotional well-being.

To learn more about Child Trauma, visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network websiteFor a detailed explanation of How Trauma Affects the Brain click here.

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