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Recognizing Trauma, Crisis, and Stress in Children or Adults; How to Help

On January 14, CRCC hosted our second Family Advocacy Series with Jessica Kroeker from Project Harmony. Jessica is a part of the Trauma Matters Omaha team and focuses her work on therapy and clinical social work. She spoke about why recognizing trauma, crisis, and stress in children is critical to their development. 

Trauma was defined as “witnessing or experiencing an event that poses a real or perceived threat.” Whether it’s real or perceived is irrelevant: if it’s perceived as trauma, it is. So many factors impact trauma perception. One of the most important take-aways is that anyone who perceives something as traumatic can be overwhelmed and lose their ability to cope. This is why it’s crucial for us to know how to help.

The Impacts of Trauma

Everyone, in some way, has had a changed perception of something based on their experiences. People who view the world with this changed perception are constantly waiting for the next traumatic experience to happen.

For instance, picture two glasses of water: one is half full, and the other is completely full. The top of the completely full glass is a typical baseline of stress and the breaking point. The half full glass represents a child, or even an adult, with trauma who has a much lower breaking point. To navigate life successfully, we all need to get along, be compassionate be kind and, when conflict happens at the intersection of perceptions, move forward using what we know about the brain to counteract.

Reframing Experiences

Jessica discussed how reframing witnessed experiences may help. During a situation, ask yourself questions before interjecting. Is the behavior something that is happening to you? Or is the behavior something happening in front of you? These questions can help decipher next steps on how you as an adult can help bring a child or another adult down from their breaking point.

We’ve all been in some sort of confrontation. How did you respond? Do you say things you didn’t mean? Finding yourself in this situation of irritability is a natural response when you have a lot on your mind and your patience is running thin. Use your skills to identify if this confrontation is happening to you or if it is just happening in front of you. Many times, stepping into the other person’s shoes will allow you to self-regulate and show up in the confrontation how you would want to model to the little ones who are always watching us.

Often when working with children in schools, at childcare centers, or at home, children have this unattainable goal of regulating their behaviors when they are already escalated. It could be from someone simply taking a toy they were playing with or having to put the toy away to move onto something else.

Adults have the capacity to understand there will be time to get the item back, and that they will play with it again soon. It would be difficult for any adult to imagine the last time they were faced with an adult yelling at them because another adult borrowed their pen. Adults can reframe their thinking and realize that children are still developing an understanding, and if trauma, crisis, or stress is at the forefront, it’s a fight or flight response to get their toy back.

Getting Through and Moving Forward

A good rule of thumb is to consider the necessities of the child when you see an escalation on the horizon. Is the child hungry, tired, or need movement? When we consider these needs, we are able to build predictable, preventable learning and resilience.

Traumatic stress is the psychological and physical symptoms that result from traumatic experiences. Until we process through these experiences, they never go away. Correcting negative thoughts and actions during a meltdown won’t work. The fight or flight response is triggered, and your body has no choice but to respond in survival mode. Children and adults are not worried about the consequences of their actions, they’re worried about what is happening immediately in that moment.

Picture your hand in a fist. Tuck your four fingers over your thumb. This is a representation of the brain. The thumb represents the fight or flight response, and the four fingers represent the lid holding your actions in. If you are in the fight or flight response, the lid flips open. The thumb is the part of the brain that controls all of your social and emotional competencies, and the four fingers are your resilience, problem solving, and regulation skills. If your lid is flipped open, there is no turning back until immediate needs are met. This is when you consider if they’re hungry, tired, or need movement.

To distract the thumb part of the brain and “close the lid,” try providing an encouraging transition into getting a snack, putting on a favorite show, giving them an opportunity to take a walk or play with a sensory toy, or even playing a game. The lid needs to be closed so we can see the best way to resolve our situation and move forward. This does not mean consequences can’t happen, but if we are piling consequences on an open lid, they will do no good. It is critical we wait, transition, and revisit when our brain is calm and focused.

Regulate, Reason, and Relate

Adults often say “they know better.” This is an example of when a child’s, or even an adult’s, brain is activated into a perception response, and it is important that we recognize that once that lid is flipped, the child or adult relies on you the most to get them their basic needs.

An infant, for example, cries when they are hungry, uncomfortable, or tired. We react with nurture, giving them their basic needs to resolve their crying. When a someone is in a fight or flight response, nothing will move the situation forward until the basic needs are met.

The best response is to regulate, reason, and relate by providing for their needs. Play a song, tell them you care about them, offer a snack, and provide a safe relationship so that the other person knows you will work it out together. This, in turn, will give the child or adult an additional opportunity to practice their skills with their lid closed. Success is only possible when we work together in showing empathy, perspective, and compassion.

For more strategies on building a better understanding of trauma, crisis, and stress, check out Project Harmony’s resources.

If you have additional questions, please feel free to reach out to any of our onsite experts at CRCC. Our job is to help support joy, health, and hope for all children and their families.

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