Gerry Vassar is President/CEO of Lakeside, a not for profit organization that for 52 years has advocated with education and professional development of staff who assist children and families who are either underserved or fall outside of the mainstream.
Question: Of all the children in the U.S, how many would you classify as traumatized?
Answer: Of 76 million children in America, 46 million annually are exposed to violence, crime, abuse and psychological trauma. That number, hard to grasp as it is, represents 2 out of 3 children in our country who are traumatized.
We can know this because the landmark Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) research. The ACE study demonstrated that children who experienced trauma have carried its substantial negative health, emotional and relational impact into their adult years.
Add to that the strong evidence and direct correlation to trauma we see from our national opioid crisis.
Complicating issues further, we are experiencing significant upsurges in mental health issues among our youth including high anxiety, panic attacks, depression and suicide. Even if only a portion of what these statistics reveal are true, we certainly need our systems caring for our children to become trauma-informed and trauma responsive.
Q: What does this mean for those who work with children?
A: It means that individuals who are working with children should understand:
• how the brain develops
• what brain states are
• the importance of brain regulation
• how to prevent trauma triggers
• how to assess trauma symptoms, and
• what therapeutic approaches can best be utilized to help children who have experienced trauma.
Without this knowledge, we will only re-traumatize our children simply by not knowing what a trauma-response is.
So many of our systems continue to be punitive. They use blame and shame tactics in order to motivate children who are emotionally wounded to change their behavior. We know punishment doesn’t work.
Q: Would you explain vicarious trauma and the need for sanctuary?
A: It is common knowledge that professionals who are dealing with trauma-impacted children and adults have a high percentage of trauma in their own past. Because of this reality, it makes them more vulnerable to vicarious trauma, which means they are experiencing their own trauma as a result of the level of toxic stress they undergo from the tragedies they are dealing with on an everyday basis.
Further, authors like Sandy Bloom in books like Creating Sanctuary and Destroying Sanctuary point to the harsh realities that our systems which are supposed to treat childhood trauma can instead further traumatize our children while they are supposed to be in treatment. This happens because of the staff and organization are unaware. They do not understand the nuances of treating traumatized children.
Q: So, those who are not trained in trauma-inform care can actually make the condition worse despite good intentions?
A: Yes, that’s true. Often, in many of our systems of care for children, we can easily find ourselves doing more harm than good.
Well intentioned professionals and lay leaders can easily find themselves struggling to know what to do with trauma-impacted children. The frustration and sense of powerlessness can be self-defeating and the consequences to our children can lead to even more devastation that can extend even to their adult lives.
Q: Treating trauma sounds complicated both in perception and reality.
A: It is precisely because of those perceptions and realities, it is imperative that caregivers and professionals have a thorough understanding of childhood trauma. When we encounter trauma-impacted individuals, we need to know about trauma’s pervasiveness, its impact, what to do and not do. We also need to know how to prevent it, and how to bring victims ways for coping and healing of these deep emotional wounds.
Becoming trauma-informed is not an easy process.
Like any other professional skill it takes a great deal of training, skill-building and processing in order to become effective as a trauma-competent individual and a trauma-informed organization.
I will be addressing the nature of trauma-informed care in our systems of care in my next few posts. We need to bring to the forefront the comprehensive depth of knowledge in the neuroscience of trauma and the best practices of how to deal with it if we are going to be effective and make real progress in the healing of trauma-impacted individuals.
Based on all the issues I have listed above, we must strive to be well-equipped to respond to trauma with essential competencies, care and compassion.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside