Lending a Hand to Traumatized Youth

Sometimes, relationships between adults and youth who have been traumatized evolve in ways that mirror stages of early childhood development, especially from an attachment perspective. What exactly does that mean for educators? Keep reading for the answer and to learn one simple strategy for navigating the road from dependence to independence with traumatized youth.

Early on in relationships with students who have experienced too much stress for too long as a result of childhood trauma, educators and other caregivers may observe that youth have difficulty establishing trust as well as in regulating their feelings and behavior. Children or teens may show patterns of withdrawal or instead, be overly clingy. Others may engage in push/pull patterns as if to say, “I need you. Get away from me.” Feelings may often be too much or not enough. Many students who have been traumatized have difficulty soothing their own distress and may not trust others to help them with their big feelings. Or, their reactions may be shut down all together.

Adults often need to responsively meet the needs of traumatized youth as quickly as possible and rely primarily on co-regulation when students are distressed, especially in early stages of the relationship. Think adult noticing, adult going towards, and adult using trial and error to figure out how to best help youth regulate and then, repeating those things that work. As this unfolds predictably over time, kids practice being dependent on adults to meet their needs, which is necessary for healthy development. The more educators or other helpers notice the need and meet the need in attuned ways, the more trust is built and the more patterns of regulation are established within relationships as well as in students’ nervous systems. This is similar to the infancy stage of human development, but may occur in relationships between traumatized youth and the safe, nurturing adults who are caring for them regardless of youth’s chronological age.

As kids grow and change in response to healthy relationships, they will gradually be ready for more independence. This too is necessary for healthy development. Often, this change is back and forth in nature, not linear. Some days, a student may come to an educator and seek out comfort or help. Other days, the adult will still need to notice and go to them. Eventually, safe, nurturing adults will help challenge youth to take on more independence as they develop self-regulation skills. Setting limits may be needed more often, and accepting the word “no” may require practice. If this sounds similar to the toddler years, you’re correct. Again, it may occur even if a student’s chronological age is beyond the early childhood years, including into the double digits.

The goal is never for adults to encourage children or teens to be fully dependent on them forever. For some traumatized youth, dependency is necessary, at least in the beginning, but that’s certainly not the case for all students; nor do we hope that it’s necessary for any student forever.

Knowing when to challenge traumatized youth to inch towards more independence and when to keep carrying most of the load ourselves to help them is not easy to figure out. Educators will misjudge it sometimes. This is exacerbated by the fact that any person’s capacity for independent regulation changes moment to moment and is influenced by other demands, one’s physiological wellness (or illness), and whether or not someone is tired, hungry, lonely, or upset.

Here’s one idea for helping start the process toward more independence when you believe that a student who has experienced trauma is ready. Imagine that you have a little one whom you have been going to when you notice distress, and they pull away, hide, or push you away in some other way. Eventually, try going towards them but not all the way to them (e.g., if they are under a table, sit on a stool near the table instead of going underneath). Then, hold out your hand and say, “I’m here when you’re ready.” Wait for them to take steps to come the rest of the way to you and for them to take your hand if they want to. This is powerful in the moment, and it’s a metaphor for how our relationships (and expectations within it) change as youth begin to heal and grow.

Do remember that all people, adults included, need trusted others to serve as a secure base throughout the lifespan, meaning they are there for us to go to when we are in need of comfort or help. Who serves in that capacity for you? Who are you a safe base for? And, how can we as a community of learners, help create safe bases for every single student, family, and colleague we serve?

Such reflection calls us to take an honest look at our practices as we show up from places of both tenderness and strength. Tender so that we are safe and approachable. Strong so that we can speak truth about what gets in the way of offering places of both physical and emotional safety for every person in our care. There are barriers. May we see them. May we speak truth about them (even when our voice shakes). And, may we purposefully dismantle them. Together.

#BuildingTraumaSensitiveSchools #BeConnected #GetRegulated