Grow Your Know – May 2016
Healing The Wounds of Abandonment
Did you see the Romanian update about Radu in this newsletter’s From the Field article? Hopefully you read it, but if not, be sure to go back and do so! It’s gratifying to look back on children like Radu, who have spent a good portion of their lives with Global Hope, and are now graduating and moving on to start their own lives. We watch them go through good times and bad as they embrace or wrestle with what life throws them. Out of it all, it’s a blessing to see these kids grow up to be responsible, caring and productive adults.
Not all children who have abandonment in their background grow up well-adjusted. Traumatic stress in a child’s early life wreaks havoc on their psyche, and can lead to a difficult and destructive life well into adulthood. We understand this at Global Hope, which is why we focus not just on physical needs, but the emotional and psychological needs as well. All of the children that Global Hope cares for come from turbulent backgrounds not unlike Radu’s, and must work through childhood trauma.
Renee Miller shares more about how complex trauma can influence a child’s behavior:
Complex trauma is defined as chronic trauma or multiple traumatic stressors that may not be clearly defined, and affect an individual for longer than 6 months.
Exposure to complex trauma changes how the brain and body react to perceived situations. When exposure occurs during childhood, the amygdala, responsible for the flight-fight response and emotional regulation, doesn’t develop normally. “Normal” arousal rates are well above a child without complex trauma.
Behaviors manifest differently in each person that experiences complex trauma; however, many are in a constant state of high arousal without the skills to reduce their arousal. When children and adolescents are faced with a mild stressor, such as being told “no” by a foster parent, their arousal levels go through the roof and they respond with the fight or flight response. The child in this instance perceives the foster parent as an imminent threat and reacts accordingly, even though that is not the intention of the foster parent.
How can we help children who have complex trauma histories? We need to recognize that children and adolescents of complex trauma cannot control their actions until they are taught to regulate their responses and to reduce their arousal. By using sensory interventions, we can create new neural pathways and reduce arousal. These interventions teach children to develop language to describe their trauma through play-like exercises. In developing language to describe their experiences, children can begin to talk about how they truly feel and develop strategies around helping them feel better when triggered.
There are many types of sensory interventions that have proven to be effective with these children and youth. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on two interventions used to help children and youth increase their capacity and ability to regulate their arousal.
First, for younger children, interventions are centered around helping them develop language for their feelings. This can happen through identifying where it hurts in their body, what color it is, what it would say, what the hurt feels like, etc. By asking these questions, we are able to look at how the child experiences this hurt today. Through naming and identifying how to describe their hurts or trauma, they are able to begin talking about how it affects them today.
Another type of sensory intervention for children and youth is to draw a picture of what their hurt looks like through a guided imagery exercise. In this exercise, the person providing the intervention, will first ask the child to draw a place that makes them feel the happiest and safest. What is safe about this place? What color is it? Where it is? Why are you happiest in this place? After reflecting on this safe place, the interventionist will ask the child about their biggest hurt and to draw a picture of what hurts the most. Again, questions are asked about the picture. What’s the most important part of this picture? Where is it taking place? The goal is to gain a greater understanding of the child’s perspective of the hurt that affects them most. Typically, this step is the most difficult for the child since they are re-experiencing their trauma. After this portion, the point isn’t to analyze the child’s drawings, but to identify their thoughts and feelings about their trauma experiences so they can become survivors of their trauma. At the end of a session, the child is asked to bring back the first drawing of their safe/happy place and to think or talk about what is good about their safe/happy drawing once again. This exercise increases the child’s arousal, but they end at their baseline level of arousal by starting and ending in a safe place.
We have come a long way in understanding how to care for children with trauma in their background, and it doesn’t happen without showing love and kindness to that child, and being willing to commit long-term to their well-being.