By Rachel S. Hutto, MS, Ed.S, LPC
There are many definitions of trauma that are used by counselors. Some are super technical and others a bit more understandable. All have their value. The definition that often makes the most sense to me and to the families and children I work with is – anything that is TOO MUCH! TOO FAST! When we have experiences that are too much too fast our body’s natural survival response system gets overwhelmed often leaving us stuck with uncomfortable or even seriously problematic symptoms. Some common challenges children healing from trauma are dealing with are: disrupted sleep, being scared easily and worrying often, hyperactivity, difficulty focusing, challenges following directions, not wanting to leave a safe adult for normal childhood activities such as playing with friends and going to school, and stomach aches or other health concerns.
Domestic violence situations are full of too much too fast experiences; the rage that comes out of “nowhere”, the yelling that wakes us from sleep, the startling siren sounds and blinding lights of the ambulance taking a parent away, the stunning silence when the fight is over, the waking in the morning to find you are home alone with no one to feed you breakfast.
Helping children heal from trauma requires the involvement of a safe adult. With that relationship securely in place (and assuming the family is no longer involved with the domestic violence situation), children are able to do amazingly resilient in counseling. Resilience can be thought of the ability to bounce back in the face of challenges.
I often start the counseling process with both education about the impact of trauma on a child and helping everyone involved in developing skills for self-regulation. I have found it really helpful for families to understand that we are created with a triune brain. This basically means we have three primary parts to our brain. All the parts have very important and connected purposes. The top front of our brain (neocortex) is what allows us to think and make decisions. The emotional brain (limbic system) is how we feel sad, happy, proud, mad, etc. The base of our brain and the spinal cord (reptilian brain) is where we have our stress response system. So, when something stressful happens (AKA too much too fast!) this part of us tells our body to go into fight, flight or freeze responses so that we can survive. Pretty amazing actually; we are designed to survive! Sometimes these normal and necessary survival responses don’t turn off after the traumatic experience is over. This doesn’t mean that anything is wrong, it just means the event was too much too fast! This is why kids can become “stuck on” in patterns of behaviors that are aggressive (fight), anxious (flight) or withdrawn (freeze) after a trauma, for example. Good news! Because fight, flight and freeze behaviors are needed and expected responses, this means children can use self-regulation skills to get unstuck and heal from the trauma.
Self-regulation skills look different for every child and family. Generally, though, they are skills for moving a child from being stuck and overwhelmed to being unstuck and underwhelmed. So, it may look like learning specialized ways of breathing, contained expressions of anger by acting out fight impulses, or bouncing on trampolines to move from freeze into mobility.
Remember everyone already has the natural capacity for resilience! Too much! Too fast! Does not have to mean too much for forever.
Rachel Hutto, MS, Ed.S, LPC, is a professional counselor and owner of Be Still Counseling, PLLC where she specializes in trauma healing and somatic psychotherapy. You can learn more at www.bestillpllc.com.