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Getting a Better Understanding of Trauma

Everyone has challenges that impede their growth and development. We all have villains in our life stories who oppose us and keep us from becoming who we're meant to become. Sometimes those villains are people, sometimes they’re life experiences or tragic moments, and sometimes they’re roadblocks or setbacks.

Some of those blips in our life stories turn into ongoing challenges and problems to face. We carry them with us, and often without realizing it those villains continue to attack, haunt, or plague us. 

For the kid who got bullied in middle school, who freezes anytime someone at work ‘powers up’ and uses a loud voice.

For the kid who had their heart broken in high school, and still pushes loved ones away subconsciously.

For the kid who missed the shot, with groans from the stands and turned backs from teammates, who now gets extremely anxious before giving big presentations at work.

Call those scenarios traumatic? Maybe. Did it affect us throughout our lives? Yes.

It’s hard to go through life without experiencing trauma, especially if you hold a broad definition of what trauma means. The research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (read all about it here) has opened our understanding of how kids respond to painful and traumatic experiences. If we don’t acknowledge the trauma, reflect on it, process it productively through guided support, and receive validation from people we trust, we are likely to stay stuck in the adverse effects of trauma:

"Each age group is vulnerable in unique ways to the stresses of a disaster, with children and the elderly at greatest risk. Young children may display generalized fear, nightmares, heightened arousal and confusion, and physical symptoms, (e.g., stomachaches, headaches). School-age children may exhibit symptoms such as aggressive behavior and anger, regression to the behavior seen at younger ages, repetitious traumatic play, loss of ability to concentrate, and worse school performance. Adolescents may display depression and social withdrawal, rebellion, increased risky activities such as sexual acting out, wish for revenge and action-oriented responses to trauma, and sleep and eating disturbances." (Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services)

Unprocessed trauma hinders learning; it erodes healthy adult development and maturity and can ruin someone’s life. Having worked closely with hundreds of transitioning veterans for the past six years, especially those who served in special forces, I’m aware of how unprocessed trauma can prevent someone from flourishing in a meaningful life. We tell students, educators, and parents the same thing we say to veterans: 

It’s hard  to build a flourishing life on top of one that’s still hurt or broken. 

Thankfully, Trauma-Informed Care (aka Trauma-Informed Practice) is a recent area of focus within social services including K-12 education. It’s an attempt to recognize unprocessed trauma in students' lives and provide a framework for providers or educators to adjust their work with people to accommodate for unresolved trauma. The key message is that trauma is present in the classroom and needs to be addressed. Teachers need to put the social and emotional needs in front of instructional goals or outcomes- or else you’ll never reach the goals. 

The hopeful message is that we can help kids process the trauma inside them and keep them stuck. We can put kids first, we can adapt to their needs, we can be more flexible in our classroom management and lesson plans- but it requires a change in priority and a beginner’s mind. It requires a refreshed understanding of what success looks like to educate kids and prepare them to flourish in life. 

One teacher recently reacted strongly to me in response to that idea. He said, “You’re asking me to do something I’m not equipped to do- I’m not trained to be a school psychologist.” I responded immediately: “Oh no- not at all. Psychologists are trained to diagnose disorders and psychological problems and prescribe effective solutions- and you’re not trained for that. I’m asking you to consider being inquisitive about your students' personal lives. I’m asking you to make it a priority to guide them into opportunities to reflect on their lives and what they’ve been through and share those experiences through writing and in conversation with peers. Because I know you care for kids, I know you’re passionate about what they learn- and you can either implement these strategies now or deal with them later.” 

Every student deserves an opportunity to build a meaningful life. In our work to build a foundation for them to flourish, we need to learn about trauma; we need to go first in resolving our unprocessed trauma, and we need to guide students to process theirs. Without that, they will always struggle to thrive. 

I’ll never forget a beautiful conversation I was a part of with a small group of student leaders a few years ago. We’d worked through a long twelve-week curriculum together, our LifeScript course that prompts them to reflect on the story of their lives. Throughout two dozen class periods, we took turns sharing stories and talking aloud about the moments and experiences that shaped us. At the last class together, a few days before graduation, I asked them to reflect on the experience of going through the curriculum together. What it sparked was nothing short of a divine moment. 

One student shared something she hadn’t revealed before, a secret she was holding onto. Two years earlier, she took an extended leave of absence from school but never explained where she went or what happened. Kids had just assumed she was sick at home. Instead, she confessed that she had gotten to a bad place with an eating disorder, and her parents checked her into an inpatient care facility. The other students in our class responded with grace and kindness, one student hugging her and whispering how much she loved her.

Another student confronted a member of our group and said, “Remember when we weren’t friends for like three years?” The boy said, “Yeah- what was that all about? All of a sudden, you stopped talking to me and ignored me.” She responded, “You know why- you were dating my best friend and cheated on her at Homecoming.” Flushed with emotion, he looked at her and then said, “Yeah- I was such an idiot. Honestly. I wish I could go back in time and change things. I made a mistake, and I’m so sorry.” With tears in both of their eyes, she said, “Well, you’re forgiven. And I’m glad we’re friends now.”

In that short moment, students were processing through significant, painful things they’d been through BEFORE they graduated from high school. Are you kidding me? Most of us never have the chance. We anxiously walk into the side door of our twenty-year high school reunion, still carrying the residue of mistakes, shame, guilt, or humiliation that’s never been adequately addressed. 

What if we allowed students to appropriately deal with the junk we all go through before they build an adult life? It’s tough to make a thriving, happy life when you’re carrying guilt, trauma, grief, or pain. 

> I’m curious- what have you learned about villains or trauma in your own life, and how are you helping those you serve to deal with theirs?

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Do you know?

For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.  

They're uncommon sense ideas, really.

Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).

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