Supporting Teens with a Trauma-Informed Approach
| March 27, 2019
*Re-posted with permission from Heart Mind Online, heartmindonline.org/resources/supporting-teens-with-a-trauma-informed-approach
Trauma-informed practice benefits everyone, regardless of one’s life history. At its core, trauma-informed practice is a way of being in relationship to others that supports safety, choice, and healing. Parenting, teaching, coaching, or mentoring in a trauma-informed way isn’t all or nothing. You don’t have to be perfect to get started – and bringing just one element of trauma-informed practice into your relationship with young people can help diffuse the toxic stress that underlies many of trauma’s negative effects. What’s more, relating to the teens in your life in a trauma-informed way can improve your own well-being, as well as theirs.
Here are 6 simple ways you can cultivate a trauma-informed approach in your relationships with teens today:
1. Understand the trauma basics
While trauma can take many forms, it typically arises from an unexpected, unwanted experience that a person is unprepared for and cannot prevent or stop. This kind of experience manifests as trauma when a person’s brain and body are overwhelmed and cannot cope with or integrate the ideas and images that are triggered. When this response is triggered in a chronic or sustained way, it can result in traumatic toxic stress, and lead to harmful lasting changes in the very structure of the brain.
2. Learn how to identify the signs of stress in adolescents
Although many signs of stress are common at every age – such as changes in eating and sleeping patterns, irritability, emotional reactivity, and withdrawal – teens may also show they are stressed in ways unique to their development. For example, a stressed-out teen may distance himself from parents, family, or long time friends, or react to inquiries of care with aggression or hostility.
While signs of stress may be perceived as “negative” behavior, they are really just a teen’s (often unconscious) way of coping with physical, psychological, and/or emotional overwhelm. If you can understand the struggle behind their behavior, you can respond with awareness that the adolescent in your life is going through a difficult time, and that they themselves may not understand why they feel – or act – the way they do.
3. Ask the right questions – and respond with empathy
Instead of asking “What is wrong with you?,” ask “What has happened to you?". And then LISTEN. When you feel ready to respond:
- Let them know what happened is not their fault.
- Use clear, simple language to let them know that what happened was not their fault and it's not a reflection on them as a person.
- Show empathy by demonstrating you have heard them and understand how they are feeling, without judgment.
Asking a teen about their experience in this way gives them the chance to share their feelings without feeling like they are the problem. Once they have shared whatever is causing them to feel or act stressed-out, you will be able to team-up to handle the issue together.
4. Write it out
Writing about stressful or traumatic experiences improves physical and psychological health and promotes well-being. The deeper and more emotional the experience, the greater the benefits of writing about it - so long as one feels safe to do so and has support to process strong emotions that may arise. Writing can be a one time thing – or become a daily habit. It's as easy as 1, 2, 3:
- To help the adolescent in your life get started, help them find a safe, confidential place to write, such as a personal notebook or computer. They could even write a note on their phone, or an email to themselves.
- Next, set a time limit, and provide a reminder of the time half way through. No one likes to run out of time to write, especially when dealing with big emotions.
- Invite them to bring to mind a stressful event or experience, and prompt them to recall their thoughts and emotions about it. You could also ask them to reflect on how the experience has affected different parts of their life – such as family life, relationships with friends, extra-curricular activities, etc.
5. Get grounded
Invite your teen to place their arms across their chest, hands open, with palms resting on the body. If this is a comfortable position for them, invite them to gently alternate tapping one hand then the other against their chest, in a rhythm that feels good to them. Eyes can be open or closed. Once they have found their rhythm, you can also invite them to notice their breathing. Keep going for a couple of minutes.
This technique, called the Butterfly Hug, is just one of many different grounding exercises that can help bring a stressed-out teen back into the present moment through moving and breathing.
6. Make time for gratitude
Gratitude may buffer individuals from serious negative impacts of traumatic experiences, such as PTSD. Consider starting a Gratitude Jar in your home or classroom. Invite participants to anonymously write down one thing they are grateful for each day, big or small, on a slip of paper, and put it in the jar. When things feel tough or an adolescent is having a hard time, suggest they pick an item (or several!) from the jar as a reminder of sunnier times. To extend this activity, you could also ask them to add to the gratitude jar when they are feeling down – while this might feel challenging, it can go a long way in brightening mood and opening up perspective.