How understanding trauma gets to the cause of behaviors

1At the recent conference of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, a keynote speaker addressed the impact of trauma on the children and families we serve. She began with a powerful exercise that asked each of us to recall a trauma we had experienced. For the first time in years I remembered a childhood incident that left me frightened and confused. I relived those strong emotions and began to examine how they impacted my life at the time and since then. Although I may consider the incident resolved, it nevertheless still can conjure up feelings of vulnerability.

Each of us has ways to cope with the traumas we experience in order to move on with our lives, but the fact is that coping is not necessarily healing and forgiveness does not equate with forgetting. Trauma, no matter how well we cope with it, leaves an enduring imprint on our heart and mind. The point of reference for unexplained anxiety and irrational reactions, trauma can linger a lifetime and, in some instances, can be passed on for generations.

Much of our professional focus over the last decade has been on developing a trauma-informed treatment and service environment that is sensitive to traumas that have been experienced and committed to lessening their impact on those we serve.

This is an extraordinary challenge given the traumas those we serve have endured. Take for example the removal of a child from a parent, siblings, family members, classmates and community. Besides the hardship of being separated, the incident or circumstance that calls for such a drastic measure is in itself traumatic. Those who initiate and carry out the removal of a child are also associated with such a traumatic event. The separation leaves a child anxious, alienated and angry. The good intentions of caregivers are often unwelcomed, only adding to the challenge of providing effective care.

Unless, as a care giving community, we understand and take into account the trauma that have made those we serve so vulnerable we run the risk of not being effective and adding to the trauma that threatens to be debilitating. A casual comment or a seemingly innocuous gesture can trigger an inordinate reaction inevitably linked to a previous trauma.

Sensitive to this critical issue, we are able to see beyond the resistance and isolation that typically is a reaction to trauma to identify the hurt and disappointment. By doing so, we can begin the process of creating trust and ultimately hope.

I left the keynote address with a greater awareness of the hardship and challenges of those we serve and grateful for a dedicated staff that look beyond their own traumas to be a source of support and comfort to the most vulnerable. Trauma-informed care must not be reduced to just a catchy phrase but must be an essential element of not only what we do at Hillsides but become emblematic of how we engage our world. Rather than being consumed by anger and reactive to behavior, a trauma-informed approach challenges us to understand and address the cause of the behavior to restore well-being and hope.

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