Dear Dr. Debbie,
My 3-year-old daughter and I moved in with my mother and her husband a few months ago. Long story short, we were fleeing from a domestic violence situation with my soon-to-be ex-husband. Things are settling down for us and I plan to go to work soon. My mother, who works as a personnel counselor, told me I should be looking for a preschool or child care center that uses “Trauma Informed Care.” What is that and how will it help my daughter?
Don’t miss last week’s column Strive for teamwork between parent and teacher – Good Parenting
Dear Moving Forward,
Trauma Informed Care is a way of accepting that an individual, in this case a child, has had a profoundly stressful experience/situation/relationship which can be expected to negatively impact her behavior. Rather than approaching her with “What’s wrong with you?” a teacher or other nurturing figure in her life needs to know “What happened to you?”
A good description of trauma is something which overwhelms an individual mentally, emotionally and physically. Trauma impacts the person’s beliefs, emotions, feelings and behaviors. Because children are immature and dependent to begin with, the traumatized child can be expected to behave with excessive fears, helplessness and strong emotions, among other challenging behaviors.
There is a physiological explanation of how this works. During stress the brain activates a protective response with a flow of cortisol and epinephrine from the adrenal glands. This causes increased heart rate, hyper alertness, muscle tension and other reactions designed to help the individual fight back, run away or freeze (shut down). That’s fine if the stress condition is a harmless house spider. It’s a different story if Daddy is threatening or causing harm to Mommy. Under severe, frequent or prolonged stress, cortisol can reach a toxic level causing the brain to lose neural connections that have been built as the child learns. In essence, she “unlearns” math and language concepts, but also social-emotional concepts such as trust. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University demonstrates this process in a short video.
A child on “high alert” under the influence of cortisol and adrenaline may cling to caregivers, quickly get into verbal or physical altercations with other children, and generally have trouble attending to and engaging in the activities teachers have planned for the class. One of the most frustrating aspects for adults is that the child cannot easily learn — due to elevated stress hormones — from the consequences of her behavior. Trauma Informed Care accepts these reactions as normal responses to a child’s past (or ongoing) abnormal life experiences. A teacher can recognize these behaviors as a cry for help rather than just a disruption to her day.
There are some wonderful resources available for helping with the classroom management of a behaviorally challenged child. In your search for the best setting for your daughter, you might share one or more of the resources listed by The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Or refer the director to a local free service, Children Arriving Mentally Prepared for School (CHAMPS Program – Early Childhood Mental Health). Healing can happen in the right environment.
Trauma Informed Care, according to the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, helps to heal the psychological damage from the experience of extreme vulnerability.
Significant adults in your daughter’s life should work together to:
- assure her safety
- re-build trust
- strengthen her empathy with peers
- allow her to make choices
- teach her to take care of herself
- treat her as a valuable and unique person with strengths of her own
There are preschool programs in the area that truly accept children for all that they are, including the unhappy truths of their past experiences. At these schools, the staff will approach the children’s care and education from the point of view of developing each child’s potential. What you don’t want is the opposite — an approach that views children as lacking in skills or knowledge often with the staff intent on punishing or “correcting” behavior that is “wrong.”
Based on a foundation of understanding how the brain and behavior are affected by trauma, a path of Trauma Informed Care is the right way to go.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com