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Diagnosed: Childhood Trauma And Resiliency

The Family Place

A traumatic event is characterized as an incident that causes harm to an individual, resulting in an individual feeling anxious, frightened and unsafe. For a child, the traumatic experience can have a lasting impact. As the child’s brain continues to develop they require additional love and support to deal with a traumatic episode. But what if that child doesn’t have that support? 

During this segment of Diagnosed, a  yearlong healthcare series,  UPR’s Dani Hayes tells us about a community group of medical, therapy and research experts working to find ways to help children in northern Utah cope with trauma. 

DH: The Family Place, an organization dedicated to strengthening families and protecting children, recently received a federal grant allowing them to create the Northern Utah Trauma Resiliency Collaboration. It’s a project designed to help community members learn what trauma is, how to interact with it and how to teach people to become resilient.

I’m with Esterlee Molyneux the executive director for The Family Place and Dr. Vonda Jump Norman, an assistant professor in social work at Utah State University and board member at The Family Place.

Vonda, could you talk a little bit about what trauma is?

VJN: Trauma could be different for different people and how we respond to an event is what’s critical. So, it may not be the event itself, but it’s our response to the event. How much does it tax our system and our ability to withstand that experience?

DH: And when kids experience childhood trauma, how does that affect their development?  

VJN: A person can experience some pretty difficult things and if they have the support of a loving caregiver or a person who is able to help them deal with that stress, then they will very likely do okay after it. When it becomes difficult for a child is in the absence of having someone available to help deal with that event or ongoing stress. Because instead of having a caregiver there who is able to help buffer that stress, then their little brains are trying to do it on their own and it’s just overwhelming for them. So, their stress systems get taxed over and over and over again.

DH: And Esterlee, part of the purpose of this resiliency collaboration is to improve the community, so how do you rewire a community to think differently when it comes to trauma.

EM: We don’t like to feel uncomfortable, we don’t like to feel pain, so we’re constantly trying to do something to make ourselves feel better. So, one example may be, you grab a bag of chips or a bag of M&Ms and you’re just going to have a few because you’re feeling stressed out and then all the sudden the whole bag is gone. It’s just for a moment you have that adrenaline rush where everything’s okay, but the problem is still waiting for you. So, people who may use substances because people don’t want to feel pain. "I don’t want to think about what happened to me, so I’m going to numb myself out, so I can feel better." 

DH: So, prevention is often more effective than treatment, so how do you teach prevention in a community?

EM: Supporting parents, first and foremost. Every single person has strengths, regardless of how you feel your life is going, or if you feel like there’s no hope, everybody has strengths. So, the first thing we do is we identify those strengths with parents and we build on those. And then we are able to teach them or help them figure out what their triggers are, so when [they say], 'my energy’s really high and I’m uncomfortable, like I’m kicking my leg when I’m sitting here or I’m fidgeting with my fingers, I’ve got all this pent-up energy and it needs somewhere to go.' So, how do we just slow down?  Take a breath, regulate our heartbeat, be in the moment, to help us know that we are not in any immediate danger, we are just being triggered by a past event.

VJN: And you know, the other thing that I think is really important to think about is that all of us have so many strengths, despite trauma. Trauma does not define us, it is a part of what may have happened in our lives, but we are so much more than that. Every person who has experienced trauma has probably also experienced lots of positive experiences as well. What we want to do is try and build on those positive experiences and create healing through positive experiences.

EM: And I would add one more thing. Healing comes through self-compassion. So often our thoughts are us being critical of ourselves. 'Why can’t I lose that weight? Why can’t I be like that person? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just get out of bed a function like the rest of the world?' And go back to those five words, what you practice grows stronger. So, if we are practicing self-hate and putting ourselves down when we truly have so many strengths. How do we practice that self-compassion?

DH: Do you see people transform when they have self-compassion?

EM: I think all of us do, right? I believe that every person on this planet has had hard experiences. That’s part of life. That’s the refiner's fire, right? What we experience can help us grow stronger. Anytime we approach a situation with kindness with ourselves or with others, the outcome is always better. 

VJN: And it’s not that we want to have lower expectations of anybody because we don’t. We all have really high expectations for all of us. For the teacher in the classroom, they need to have high expectations of every student in the classroom. Kids rise to that expectation. And yet, with that in mind, for all children in the classroom, there are practices that can be implemented that are supporting the positive development of the kids, especially for those kids who have had hard experiences. So we want to have the exact same expectations, it’s not like when we talk about self-compassion it’s not like, 'Oh, poor me' sort of thing. It’s that this is hard and I can do it. 

Support for Diagnosed has been provided in part by our members and Intermountain Budge Clinic, a multi-specialty clinic offering care for every member of your family in one location. Details found here.