At a recent symposium on trauma, Dr. Sandra Bloom, author, international speaker and practitioner on how we can build safe sanctuaries for our children, presented a series of facts regarding the impact of trauma on children. One of her most compelling points illustrated how we categorize certain behaviors for children and adults in our systems of care.
Sick, Bad or Injured
When children are having or creating problems at school, home or in our communities they are usually categorized as sick or bad: diagnosing them as having mental health issues or identifying them as criminals.
If someone is labeled as sick, he (she) is usually put into the mental health system, meaning the individual has a fundamental defect that is not his fault. It also requires the person be stabilized, and therefore he becomes dependent on an expert. Little or no accountability is determined for the person’s behavior, because it is usually stated that he has no real choice. Therefore, there is an assumption that no one else can truly understand the person’s problem.
If someone is labeled as criminal, he (she) enters the criminal justice system. This person also has a fundamental defect, but with this label, it is considered his fault. The individual probably will not recover, and consequently, he is placed in a system that insists that orders are followed. In this system, there is total accountability and no one is willing to understand the person’s problem.
Neither of these categories of troubling behavior is helpful or empowering in any way to the individual’s recovery. However, it is more tragic that these labels and diagnoses are not trauma-informed and, thus, often misguided.
Understanding how to help the traumatized person recover
If we could recognize that in many cases in which behavior cannot be understood or appears dysfunctional, usually a life event or experience has caused it. In other words, something happened to that person which was probably not within his or her control. Consequently, if we identify the problem as an experience out of his control, the individual has the possibility for recovery. He or she can take an active role in the process of change and healing. This process necessitates mutual accountability, includes choices regarding treatment and involves understanding from those around them.
Though Dr. Bloom’s point seems basic, most of the time society still diagnoses people to be sick or criminal. To be labeled by those categories deprives a person of the ability to change and grow.
How might we change the labeling and begin to address the underlying issues? If we ask the question “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” then I believe we may identify and enable appropriate help and support for those who have been traumatized and who are experiencing emotional or relational consequences.
Those of us in the profession of helping children and families have come to recognize that most labels ascribed on behalf of our children are not very helpful. Rather, we should be asking more questions that are related to how someone has been injured and to what extent the individual has been damaged physically or psychologically. This kind of information truly leads us to be able to help children and adults. Armed with these details, we can help children and adults deal with the issues that have plagued them, the issues that have evoked the kind of behavior that can be misunderstood, misdiagnosed and ineffectively treated.
Change the question. Revolutionize how we help our traumatized children.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network