A trauma-informed lens helps build developmental relationships.

When an infant is born into this world, they're born with some 90 billion neurons, and many of these neurons start connecting in some ways before they're born. After they are born, many of them begin to form in ways that are directly related to the relationships or the environment that they're in.

All children deserve and have an innate need for these two things: love and trustworthiness. These are two basics that are important for kids to thrive. 

There are multiple things that are going on in our systems and our culture that influence child development, and developmental relationships with children are really at the core. 

In my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with children and teens, the youth that I worked with had incredible obstacles to overcome. Many witnessed or experienced violence in their neighborhoods. They did not have access to resources, and they experienced discrimination and racism.

Their lives involved risks and challenges. But it’s important not to just think about the risks, but to reframe and understand their strengths. This means recognizing and understanding the protective processes. 

This is important because we know that not all risks lead to negative outcomes. Some protective processes lead to resilience. And some of the most important stories to understand are those that demonstrate the great resilience of people and communities.

Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

A lot of research is being done on the lasting effects of what are called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Adversity in childhood can leave its mark on young kids; it can even decrease life expectancy. Some ACEs include:

  • Abuse. This includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
  • Neglect. Physical and emotional.
  • Household dysfunction. This includes having a family member with mental illness; having a relative who has been incarcerated; or witnessing domestic violence, substance abuse, or divorce in the home.

When we follow people who have ACEs in their childhood, we learn that the experiences often lead to negative outcomes, unless there's something that really intervenes in their lives. Decades of research in this area show us our bodies remember these adverse experiences. And they record them in really powerful ways that often guide the way we think about things unconsciously. 

Adverse Community Experiences (Pair of ACEs)

We also know that the impact of ACEs is not just on individuals. Adversity can happen at a community level. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color. We can't think about ACEs without understanding the broader system, taking into account systemic racism and institutional racism. 

Racism, poverty, and violence create real barriers for people and also can create trauma for people as they have experienced them. When the world views and shares videos of police brutality and killing, people respond to that threat to their physical selves and their communities. 

So we have to consider adversity not just at an individual level. We need to expand it to the context in which people live.

The Pair of ACEs tree was designed to identify some of the ways people in low‑income communities of color are disproportionately affected by the COVID‑19 pandemic.

  • COVID‑19 Adverse Community Experiences: housing instability; substance abuse and domestic violence; lack of access to technology, remote work, and educational opportunities; food insecurity; lack of access to primary care and screening; unemployment and lack of paid leave; high rates of risk factors and mortality due to chronic disease.

  • Adverse Community Environment: poverty; discrimination; community disruption; lack of opportunity, economic mobility, and social capital; violence; poor housing quality and affordability.

Defining Trauma

Trauma is an event or a series of events that leave a recording on the body and in the brain. It imprints in such a powerful way that we can experience it as if it’s happening repeatedly. Trauma is subjective, and everybody responds differently.

Here’s an example: Let’s imagine that someone goes walking on the beach every day as a peaceful getaway. They talk about how important that walk is for their emotions and emotional regulation. But one day when they're walking along the beach, someone robs them at gunpoint. Now this peaceful place for somebody suddenly transforms into a traumatic experience. Now there are triggers associated with that event that can be transported to other contexts, even when that threat is not there. 

Trauma has adverse effects on our mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well‑being. And often that's because our body records that event in a really profound way.

Trauma‑Informed Lens

I’ll never forget an experience early on in my work as a counselor at a high school where I sat with some of the school staff. They were talking about one of the students that I was working with, and the way they were talking was really upsetting to me. They were saying things like, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. He doesn’t even have a chance. Have you met his parents? He’s a difficult child. He doesn’t want to be helped.”

I was thinking: You don't know his story. 

People develop behaviors in response to trauma. When you expand the context, the behavior makes sense, and it begins to open the door for empathy and action. That makes a real difference.

I knew this young person’s story. I knew what his mom had endured to really give him a better life. I knew the struggle they had on a regular basis, and how many hours she worked. I knew that he struggled with anxiety. His story was so much bigger than the other staff’s judgment of his behavior. 

A trauma‑informed lens allows us to understand that trauma is widespread. It impacts not only the students we serve, but also the people around them. Many of us have a trauma story or narrative in our lives, and it affects how we see the world. It begins to allow us to put a new lens on how we interact with people. 

Beginning with understanding, a trauma‑informed lens helps us to really tap into practices that prepare us to work in efficient, effective, and empathetic ways with people who have experienced trauma.

Finally, a trauma-informed lens helps us to prevent a retraumatization when there’s a trigger, something in another context that brings that person back to that moment in a powerful, physiological way.

Here’s how the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) breaks down what it means to use a trauma-informed lens:

  • Realizing the widespread impact of trauma

  • Recognizing how trauma may affect young people, families, staff, or others in the school, program, or organization

  • Responding by applying knowledge about trauma in practice

  • Preventing retraumatization

Resilience Through Developmental Relationships

Protective and Compensatory Experiences (PACEs)

A trauma‑informed lens helps us to approach youth with empathy and understanding while also recognizing their potential strength. In much the same way that we are shaped by adverse childhood experiences, we are also shaped deeply by positive experiences that lead to resilience. Supportive relationships and enriched environments are critical for providing youth with positive experiences that can protect them from the impact of ACEs. 

  • Supportive relationships:  parent/caregiver unconditional love, spending time with a best friend, volunteering or helping others, being active in a social group, having a mentor outside of the family

  • Enriched environment: living in a clean, safe home with enough food, having opportunities to learn, having a hobby, being active or playing sports, having routines and fair rules at home

Young people’s stories are not determined by the number of past ACEs but by the quality of their relationships and access to resources. Relational wounds in our lives require relational healing. We have to be persistent in showing up for youth every day — recognizing the power of relationships for promoting resilience. Strong developmental relationships help young people transform their pain into purpose in life. When adults are able to consistently express care, provide support, challenge growth, share power, and expand possibilities, youth feel valued, seen, and heard. This consistency creates psychological safety and hope for the future. Developmental relationships also provide opportunities to enrich the environments of young people by expanding their possibilities. 

Our minds and bodies are very adaptable and resilient under the right circumstances and when the people in our lives help us to develop some of the courage to face our pain. This emotional connection is an essential part of building lasting and meaningful relationships.

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