6 Steps of Trauma-Sensitive Connection
I’ve always loved the model of the “downstairs” and “upstairs” brain, outlined in “The Whole-Brain Child” by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. Most children and adults experience their downstairs brain switching on, during times of substantial stress or moments when they feel personally threatened. The model explains how the amygdala, responsible for staying alert to danger, acts like a “baby gate” – the logical and reflective functions of the upstairs brain are closed off and our survival mode takes over until the threat has passed.
Through sensitive, nurturing and responsive interactions with a parent or caregiver, a child learns that not every situation necessitates this defensive response. He or she learns to trust that they are safe and supported. They realise that difficult thoughts and feelings associated with stress are temporary and can be tolerated. But when we think of a young person with a background of trauma and loss, their enduring experience of fear, change and uncertainty has resulted in a very sensitive baby gate; one which snaps on at the slightest sign of stress. Their amygdala is so defensive that it reacts to situations which other young people would barely think twice about.
It’s through relationships that we reach these young people. How we communicate with them in the heat-of-the-moment determines whether a crisis is averted or maintained. Expecting them to quickly control their impulses and regulate their feelings is incompatible with the structure of their brain. This is why a behaviour management approach is often unsuitable, before it doesn’t take time to address the understandable stress-response.
In this blog, I’m going to outline six steps recommended by Kristin Souers and Pete Hall (authors of “Fostering Resilient Learners) for communicating with children and young people at times of crisis and conflict. These are the steps we can take in order to be sensitive to the trauma underpinning their actions and choices.
This is about showing the young person that they are seen and heard. We communicate that we are listening through our eyes, our mouth and our body language. It’s important that we’re mindful of how a neutral expression or stance may be perceived as threatening. Listening is about giving time for the young person to put their thoughts into words and also allowing a pause for ourselves. We need to refrain from the natural urge of immediately considering our own response and stick with what is being said.
- “I want to find out how you’re feeling about…”
- “It’s important for me to know what you think”.
- “Tell me more…”
The young person will need reassurance that their perspective on a situation is important and that we care for them no matter how they might be thinking and feeling. It creates a sense of safety through which we not only communicate that we are listening, but that what they’re saying is worth listening to. Just think of how many times that young person may not received reassurance; occasions where their views were ignored or dismissed.
- “I can see how you feel that way. This means a lot to you”.
- “I’m glad you told me this. I want you to come to me when you have a problem”.
- “You’re going through a tough time and I want to help you with this.
Validation is about accepting the inner experience of the child. Within Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s model of “Connect and Redirect”, they emphasise the need to tap into the emotions experienced by the child, before we can expect them to engage in logical reflection and planning. Let’s be clear that validation does not suggest that we are condoning a particular choice or action; it simply shows the child that their thoughts and feelings are not being judged. It’s a tricky step in this process because it requires us to be logical and reflective. In a stressful situation where a young person is being oppositional or aggressive, it can be easy for us to minimise their inner experience and leap towards “Respond” or even expect a quick “Resolve” based on warnings or consequences.
- “I get why you were cross with your friend. You thought he was laughing at you and that made you really angry”.
- “I’m not surprised that you were so upset. I’m just realising that you were scared in that moment and that’s why you…”.
- “I know you didn’t want to hear me say that. It must have felt so unfair that it was time to tidy up, when you wanted to keep going”.
Our response to the young person is communicating with them, not to them; provided the above steps have been followed first. We are explaining what actually occurred through our calm perspective. Souers and Hall describe how this can offer insight into a situation and provide the young person with an alternative perspective; one which they can think about now that their emotions have been attended to.
- “I want you to know that I really like you. You’re so kind to others and have such a great sense of humour. What I don’t like is how you…because my job is to keep you safe”.
- “I didn’t notice how you were feeling. That’s why it looked as if I was ignoring you. It probably seemed as if I didn’t care, but I was helping someone else at the time”.
- “You thought that he pushed you over deliberately and you needed to fight back. But I was watching all of you at the time and I could see that he wasn’t looking where he was going. I could tell how annoyed you were, but it was really an accident”.
Repairing is essential for healing the break in relationship between a young person and a key adult. During experiences of trauma and loss, there may be little modelling of this skill. If a family environment involved heated arguments and fights, the adults involved may have acted as if nothing happened later on instead of talking through the problem. In a school setting, the young person being able to return to an environment or apologise for an action may be mistaken for repair. In reality, there may be lingering resentment, fear and shame. Repair also involves accepting and even apologising for our role in what happened. Within the Low Arousal approach, Andy McDonnell explains the transactional nature of stress and how it can be inadvertently triggered by factors in the environment or how we respond to individuals. Therefore, we have to be willing to take responsibility for our contribution to a stressful situation.
- “I didn’t take time to prepare you for what was happening. I didn’t get to you in time and I know that it must have been scary for you”.
- “I’m sorry if it felt like I was only asking you to stop. I didn’t realise there were others doing it. I would have given the same message to everyone and it would have seemed much fairer”.
- “I get that this morning was difficult. But I want you to know that I’m still here for you. Even when we have problems, I still care about you and I’m going to stick around during the tough times”.
This final step focuses on how to make things better in the future. It helps the young person to think of a different way of handling a situation in order to reduce the likelihood of a similar problem. When we take a behavioural approach to an undesirable behaviour, there can be too much emphasis on compliance and punishment. The problem is felt to be “over” when the young person eventually does the right thing or experiences a sanction. But when the young person shows the same behaviour time and time again, it’s clear that there hasn’t been sufficient emphasis on the earlier steps above and crucially how we help them to avoid the same situation reoccurring.
- “Next time you feel this way, what if you…”.
- “Let’s make a plan. What’s the first thing you should do if…”.
- “Don’t worry, I’ll be checking in with you to see how it’s going. I know there’ll be times where it’s really hard, but I’m proud of you for giving it a go”.
I really like these six steps because they align with how the brain can be affected by trauma. Under times of significant stress, most children will find it difficult to climb to their “upstairs brain”. But for a child who has experienced trauma, this stairway is not well trodden. They are used to being in survival mode. They’ve spent a great deal of time “downstairs” and need us to act as their handrail. They need our upstairs brain to tame their downstairs brain.
The above steps are also a useful framework for how we speak to parents, caregivers and colleagues who are under enormous pressure. When they come to us looking exhausted, angry or despondent, how we react can have big implications for how they feel in the next hour, the next day or the next week. Despite our best intentions of helping them to think differently and find a quick solution, we too easily skip over the most important aspects of wellbeing. Feeling heard. Feeling connected. Feeling felt.
· Alexander, J. (2019). Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Your guide to creating safe, supportive learning environments for all students. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
· McDonnell, A (2019). The Reflective Journey: A practitioner’s guide to the Low Arousal approach. Alcester: Studio III.
· Siegel, D.J & Bryson, T.P (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 proven strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. London: Robinson.
· Souers, K. & Hall, P. (2016). Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom. Alexandria: ASCD.