The following post was written by CLS social worker Maggie Potter.
“The word trauma is used to describe experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless. Trauma has sometimes been defined in reference to circumstances that are outside the realm of normal human experience. Unfortunately this definition does not always hold true. For some groups of people, trauma can occur frequently and become part of the common human experience.” (Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice)
“In addition to terrifying events such as violence and assault, we suggest that relatively subtler and insidious forms of trauma – such as discrimination, racism, oppression, and poverty – are pervasive and, when experienced chronically, have a cumulative impact that can be fundamentally life-altering.” (Lakeside Global Institute)
We often talk about the various kinds of traumas experienced by children in the child welfare system –the traumas that they experienced as a result of whatever situation landed them in foster care in the first place, the trauma of removal from their parents, and the traumas that can happen all too often in foster care. We don’t always discuss the traumas that the parents have experienced and how they are re-traumatized by the system, but we should talk about this issue if we want to do a better job engaging parents and empowering them to reunify with their children.
Trauma can take a number of forms. The parents we represent have often experienced physical or sexual abuse, assault, poverty, racism, complex medical issues, and loss, among others.
Chronic, unrelenting trauma, especially over the course of an individual’s developmental history, can impact the way a person’s brain functions. Understanding some of the basics of brain development can be eye opening in understanding the impact that trauma has on a parent and what is happening “behind the scenes” when they are triggered.
Our brains develop from the “bottom up.” The brainstem is the part of the brain that is responsible for the most primitive, survival functions, including regulating body temperature, breathing, and heart rate. This part of the brain is fully functional at birth. The midbrain (or “reptilian brain”) develops early in life and is responsible for regulating appetites, sleep, vision, hearing and other senses. This is our “reacting” brain and this is the part of the brain we operate from when in a state of extreme alarm. The limbic system controls the experience and expression of emotions. And, finally, the cortex is the last part of the brain to develop – it continues to develop well into our adulthood. This part of the brain is the most malleable and the most complex. It controls our higher order executive functions like spatial reasoning, logic, judgment, thinking through risks and consequences, and making decisions.
When someone is triggered – or reminded of something traumatic that happened in the past – their brain actually enters a different state. Dr. Bruce Perry lays out a framework to understand the different brain states and how a person may be functioning when they are in a different brain state. When someone is calm, their brain is making connections between sensations, thoughts and feelings, they are able to be creative, thoughtful, and plan for the future. Their functional IQ is relatively high. In a state of alarm, they may become more emotional, unable to think beyond the immediate future.
When people begin to feel a sense of danger, though, their brain begins releasing chemicals like cortisol – the stress hormone – which can hijack the system with fear. They may have a hard time processing and understanding complex information, or making important decisions, remembering key details, and this is because they are actually unable to access their cortex. Their brain has shut down those higher order functions in order to focus on the (perceived) threat. They have entered the fight-flight-freeze mode.
These trauma reactions often take one of two primary modes – hyper-arousal or dissociation. This means that someone may seem to overreact, yelling or becoming agitated, or they may seem to underreact, going blank, shutting down or lacking affect.
If you work in the child welfare system, you have probably seen these reactions in play. Court can be a triggering experience for clients. They may have had a bad experience in court in the past. They may perceive the entire experience as a threat to their sense of who they are as a parent. Many of my clients have reacted in these typical trauma reaction styles – some shut down, appearing numb or blank, or conversely, some clients have been known to yell, cry, or seemingly lose control of their behavior even after being counseled to stay calm in front of the judge. These reactions are temporary, they are normal reactions to trauma, and they do not mean that parents are unable to be successful parents, that they need anger management, or that they don’t care.
Trauma can make it difficult for parents in the child welfare system to work towards their goals. Behaviors that the parents are exhibiting may seem confusing or frustrating to a worker. But, knowing more about trauma can help you understand some of the reasons behind those behaviors and to help you to not take it personally. Becoming more trauma aware, even if you don’t know the full extent of what a person’s trauma history is, can help you and your organization be more effective in working with trauma-impacted clients.
Some considerations for how to meet the needs of trauma impacted individuals are listed below. Knowing more about the impact of trauma is an important first step in becoming more effective in whatever role you have, whether it is as a caseworker, therapist, parent educator or advocate.
The needs of trauma impacted individuals:
- To know they are safe from emotional or physical harm
- An understanding, appreciation and respect for the impact trauma may be having on them, and about the ways trauma may impact their behaviors, beliefs, and feelings
- Fair and reasonable expectations that do not pressure, demand or insist on changes faster than a person can accomplish them.
- Time to gradually gain trust
- As much predictability as possible
- Non-threatening interactions and responses from others
- Invitations to move from a lower brain state to a higher one, through attitudes and behaviors that engender calmness, acceptance, nurturance, and encouragement.
- Gentle encouragement to regain self-control
- Opportunities to safely grieve losses