According to SAMHSA, ⅔ of children report at least one traumatic event by the time they are 16 years of age. And, after this past year of living through a global pandemic and witnessing racial and civil injustices, it is safe to say that trauma has probably touched more of our households than ever before.
Trauma is a psychological or emotional response to an experience that is deeply distressing to the individual. This may include:
- Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse
- Physical and emotional neglect
- Parental mental illness
- Substance dependence
- Parental separation or divorce
- Loss of a loved one
- Domestic violence
The evidence is clear that trauma has adverse effects on the developing brain. Recent advances in neuroimaging have revealed increased amygdala volume (the body’s fear-response mechanism) and inhibited growth in the brain’s gray matter, which is associated with learning and emotional regulation.
Our nervous system, under healthy circumstances, is wired to keep us safe in the face of threats. If we were face-to-face with a lion, our amygdala would take over and help us either fight or flight. Our learning brain would make way for our survival mechanisms. This is an adaptive response.
But when the lion (or stress) comes home with us every day, the response becomes maladaptive. Because past experience has told us that we are unsafe, our fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses become our default patterns for everyday encounters. In this way, the body keeps score, putting in place defense and coping mechanisms to survive.
In addition to the ways trauma can affect us individually (as mentioned above), there are also systematic ways that trauma affects us such as community and environmental trauma like community violence, structural racism, historical trauma, discrimination, poverty, substandard schools, and natural disasters.
There has been a shift in the way we view children. At one time, their behavior was considered a definition of them, with parents and professionals asking, “What’s wrong with you?”
Through revelations in science, the lens has broadened and there is a more holistic understanding: All behavior is communication and misbehavior is communication of an unmet need. While these needs may vary, prolonged exposure to stress and trauma greatly impact a child’s emotional and behavioral development. And thus, a trauma-informed approach was created to support those who have faced adverse experiences.
The focus of the trauma-informed approach is on helping a child feel physically and physiologically safe, and it equips children with skills to cope with trauma reminders (triggers) and supports their emotional regulation. In doing so, they are better able to soothe their reactive brain and access their learning brain.
Trauma-informed care shifts the question from “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” And while this is a huge evolution in the way we perceive and connect with children who have faced challenging situations, it is only part of the puzzle and may come with a stigma all of its own.
When we label those with adverse experiences as “traumatized” we can create a stigma that there is something to fix, which shadows the wholeness of the individual. And while the individual may have experienced adversity, they are not defined by their trauma.
The resilience-informed approach is a strength-based framework that shifts the question of “What happened to you?” as seen in a trauma-informed approach to “What is right within you?” Whatever way our body and minds responded to our endured trauma is exactly the coping mechanisms our body needed to survive. There is nothing broken about that, and, actually, it’s quite remarkable. And so resilience-informed practices focus not only on the trauma but on the innate skills within us that we can build upon to propel us forward.
To build resiliency, there are protective factors that work together, allowing children to face difficulty, adversity, and life’s changes. The single most common protective factor for children is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or another adult. These connections help children plan, monitor, and regulate behaviors and adapt to changing circumstances, all of which enable them to respond to adversity when they face it. This helps them to:
- Focus on their strengths
- Increase their distress tolerance
- Reprocess traumatic life events safely
- Feel empowered to take an active role in their life
With support in place, children can build resilience to overcome adverse experiences. This ability to “bounce back” from traumatic events is deeply connected to having the opportunity to work through difficult life experiences.
3 Ways To Mindfully Build Resilience
1. Somatic Healing
Somatic healing such as tracking develops new neural pathways and behaviors that provide alternative ways of responding to the environment without becoming stuck in past habits.
Tracking is the ability to pay attention to and notice the sensations in our bodies. This is important because, where attention goes, energy flows, which means we can shift our physiology with our thoughts.
Close your eyes and notice your sensations using descriptive words.
- Do you feel hot or cold?
- Are your muscles tight or relaxed?
- Is your breathing shallow, rapid, or restricted?
- Do you notice trembling or twitching?
- Is there pain? Is it dull or sharp?
Simply bringing awareness to the physical sensations in the body creates change. Once there is a conscious awareness of body sensations, we can deepen the experience by gently amplifying them using our breath. With every breath, breathe into the sensation to help you process and release the symptoms of trauma.
Tracking can be experienced with children through activities such as a mindful munch and sensation walks. A mindful munch can be done during snack time or any mealtime. During this practice, invite your child to notice the smell, feel, and taste of the food. Chew slowly and pay attention to details. A sensations walk is a purposeful stroll that can be done indoors or outdoors where the child notices his or her environment with each sense.
We can cultivate internal and external resources that we can draw upon when feeling stressed or triggered in a trauma response. Resources restore a sense of safety, inner calm, and choice about what we feel or do, allowing us to turn towards the pain without becoming overwhelmed.
An example of an internal resource is visualization. This can be done by bringing to mind any person, place, memory, or thing (real or imagined) that helps you feel calm, nurtured, strong, or joyful. This practice helps you reclaim a sense of safety from the inside out.
Close your eyes, taking deep, intentional breaths, and think of a place or time that evokes a feeling of safety and peacefulness. Use your senses to give your image texture and color. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, and feel? As you access this place within your mind, you will feel the physiological and psychological shifts from stress to peace.
One way to practice resourcing with children is to create a book of resources with them. This can include pictures, drawings, writings, and other mementos that help them feel at peace. They can then access the book when needed as a tool to help ground themselves into the present moment.
3. Help Now Strategies
Mindfulness activities can strengthen present-moment awareness, increase self-compassion, and strengthen a person’s ability to self-regulate. These are important skills that support trauma recovery.
The “Help Now” strategies can pull us into the present moment and help us co-regulate with our children. These activities can be incorporated into a time-in to help our children center and also to provide a secure attachment for our children to process their sensations, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. “Help Now” strategies include:
- Mindful walks
- Counting backward from 20
- Drinking water
- Wall push-ups
- Counting colors in the room or counting the shapes you see
- Using a grounding trinket like a rock and noticing the texture/how it feels
- Purposeful movements such as tai chi, yoga or, qi gong
Because our nervous system is adaptable, changeable, and malleable, adversity is not our destiny. Rather, it is an opportunity to build resilience, strengthen our skills and become more of who we are meant to be.