I went to a training on creating trauma-informed systems of care. I was impacted by the implications on schools and youth ministries. People often look to the church for hope in the midst of tragedy. The church can be a place of good news and healing if they take steps to be trauma-informed in what they do.
Trauma studies report 70% of all adults have experienced some form of trauma. Trauma experiences can range from a simple car accident that results in injury, to gang violence in the city, to physical or sexual assault, to repeated name calling, to being in high stress environments such as jail or prison. 90% of those people suffering from trauma end up in public behavioral health systems seeking support and therapy. 70% of teens who seek treatment for addiction report having traumatic experiences in their young lives, often repeated trauma. New research has revealed trauma can actually derail normal development of the body, brain, and cognition.
SAMHSA (2012) reports “individuals can be retraumatized by those whose intent it is to help”. Trauma clearly interferes with healthy brain development and coping measure become problematic (i.e., substance use, avoidance, aggression, risky behaviors).
As we engage youth in our programs (especially schools and churches) we must understand the principles of trauma informed care.
Understanding attachment theory should be required for all who work with children and adolescents. Attachment theory is best explained as the type of connection (attachment) one has with their primary care givers as a child. When the infant/child is cared for and nurtured the growing infant develops a sense of security that their needs will be taken care of. As a result, the child will likely develop into an adolescent/young adult who is autonomous, self-controlled emotionally and behaviorally, well-formed identity, and can adapt to changing circumstances.
A child who experiences high levels of stress or trauma is more likely to develop insecure or avoidant attachment styles of interacting with the world around them. If they are victimized, they will likely be extra weary of people and see the world as unsafe. Due to this worldview, the child has to develop maladaptive ways to interact with the dangerous world they live in.
When a child experiences trauma the architecture of the brain is changed and emotions and cognition are not integrated. The separate regions of the brain do not communicate effectively with one another so, when something triggers a memory of trauma that fear signal cannot be challenged with rational thought because the pathways have been disrupted. This means everything is a potential trigger for re-activating the trauma.
One example of this is when a young person, that has been sexually abused and threatened or coerced into not reporting the abuse, is told by a well-meaning youth worker that she cannot have her cell phone on the retreat away from home. The reason for this is so the student can focus on God without the distraction of modern mobile technology. Unfortunately, a trauma-impacted student may experience this as a loss of safety that reignites the feeling of being powerless to call for help if needed.
Children and youth are vulnerable populations but there are intersections that increase their vulnerability because we live in a society that marginalizes anyone that is different from the norm (i.e., LGBT, people of color, disables, gender, religion, class, etc.). The greater the number of identity intersections the higher the likelihood of victimization and trauma. Think about the homeless black teenage girl who was kicked out of her house because she identifies as a lesbian. She also recently dropped out of school because she has a learning disability. Now, in order to survive on the streets, she resorts to survival sex with strangers just for a warm bed and a hot meal. This is traumatizing if it happens just once but for many marginalized youth, this becomes a way of life.
If a young person is handled with care, healing can occur. Our school or church can help this precious child begin the healing by creating a trauma informed program or ministry. This starts by educating staff and volunteers. Bring a local therapist, who specializes in trauma, to speak to your team about the impact of trauma and how to be more informed as a team. There are also plenty of resources on the web. Conversations on the Fringe has several blog posts dedicated to trauma.
Another way we can help a hurting student is by creating safe spaces for them to walk with Jesus. Their journey may not be as linear as most of their peers. Cultivating an environment for vulnerability is of the utmost importance but remembering the classroom or youth ministry room is no replacement for a qualified and trained therapist.
Trauma impacts whole family systems. They will need support as they begin the journey to freedom and healing. Trauma alienates and can lead to isolation for families who are ashamed, embarrassed, overwhelmed, and hurting themselves. They need your friendship more than anything. Be present. Sit quietly. Cry with them. Bring meals to families sorting out their trauma stories. Incarnate real love and support. Prayer is good and essential but no replacement for a hug or wiping away tears or a warm dinner.
Lastly, creating a trauma-informed program is a justice issue. If a traumatized young person is to ever recovery a sense of goodness and justice in the world, if they are ever to let go of the natural anxiety of being victimized and move out into the world a whole-hearted person, they need to know and experience goodness that brings balance to their life. Trauma leaves such a powerful and deep impact on the mind and soul that it will take good people doing good to re-establish equilibrium to their mind and soul. The issue of justice cannot be avoided in human service or ministry organization because, it is the heart of why people seek help for trauma in the first place.
What does justice work look like for victims of trauma? What does it look like for perpetrators of trauma?
If you are interested in receiving training on creating trauma-informed ministries, Conversations on the Fringe provides a variety of services for youth workers ministering to trauma-impacted/at-risk students.
Chris Schaffner is a veteran youth worker and certified counselor. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.