Ritch Hochstetler | May 6, 2022
The Crisis At Ground Level
According to a survey of young American’s just released by Harvard, the mental health crisis among our children is escalating dramatically. Over 50% of youth reported feeling down, depressed, or hopeless for several days over a two-week period. Depression, self-harm and suicide are all on the rise with almost a quarter of youth surveyed reporting thoughts of hurting themselves or being better off dead. Suicide rates, which remained stable from 2000 to 2007, jumped by nearly 60% by 2019 according to the Center for Disease Control.
To exacerbate the situation of declining mental health and well-being, there are a number of subsets of youth who also feel they are under attack. One respondent shared that “Our generation feels under attack from many directions.” Survey results support this statement with more than one in five youth who identify as LGBTQ saying they feel under attack “a lot” because of their sexual orientation. Overall, minority groups representing sexuality, race, religion, and politics reported not feeling safe in America. Three-fifths of young black Americans believe people of their racial background feel under attack.
Reporting on the Harvard study in the New York Times, April 23, 2022 edition, Matt Richtel’s article, “It’s Life or Death: The Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teens,” he states, “American adolescence is undergoing a drastic change. Three decades ago, the gravest public health threats to teenagers in the United States came from binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy, and smoking. These have since fallen sharply, replaced by a new public health concern: soaring rates of mental health disorders.”
The reality is, many schools and youth-serving organizations are not staffed adequately to handle the flood of social and emotional needs of the kids who walk through their doors. This results in the feeling that many program interventions equate to placing a band aid on a hemorrhage. In order to be better prepared, it is vital that youth development professionals at all levels have an understanding of trauma-informed care and a baseline competency to apply the tools that it provides.
Understanding What Trauma-Informed Means
Trauma-informed care is an approach that recognizes, most people have experienced trauma in their lives. Rather than minimizing, denying, or ignoring this trauma, trauma-informed care seeks to bring to light the nature of the trauma and the impact it had or is having on the individual.
According to the University of Buffalo Center for Social Research, trauma-informed care is comprised of five key components that include: safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness, and empowerment. Each component highlights a core need of healthy youth development that has been impacted by trauma. And, each core need can be addressed with a trauma-informed practice that provides the right kind of intervention that opens the door for the possibility of renewal and an overall sense of well-being.
Trauma-Informed Practice #1: Ensuring Physical and Emotional Safety
There is a reason that Maslow’s research highlighted safety among the top “deficiency needs” in his motivational model. Beyond adequate water and food, we are social animals who struggle to survive in environments that pose a constant threat. This elevates our stress response system to become pervasively stuck on high alert. Therefore, creating a physically and emotionally safe environment for kids is an essential first step to meeting kids where they are.
According to psychotherapist Lena Aburdene Derhally, here are some ways to create an environment that is emotionally safe for children:
- Don’t dismiss feelings – kids need to grow their emotional vocabulary, and this requires expression
- Validate and empathize – it says your perspective is important to me and makes sense
- Let them know it’s okay to fail – communicate that if we never make mistakes then we won’t grow
- Be available and open to talk about anything – even the stuff that makes you uncomfortable
- Be aware of your own stuff – be curious and mindful about things kids share that trigger your own trauma
Trauma-Informed Practice #2: Giving Choice and Control
Most educators and youth workers have heard the term “locus of control.” It is a psychological concept that refers to how strongly people believe they have control over situations and experiences that affect their lives. The important caveat, especially for kids, is that, in order to navigate trauma, you need to develop an internal locus of control that centers you in the belief that success or failure is a result of effort, or lack thereof, that you invest. If your locus of control is external, then the belief is that everything happens to me and I am at the mercy of fate, luck, or circumstances. This leads to feelings of helplessness and depression.
Though it’s never an exact science, this trauma-informed practice offers many opportunities to grow self-efficacy and resilience including:
- Explore opportunities for kids to have success and develop mastery – find something they’re interested in and support their passion to stick with it
- Request help on daily tasks – there’s always work to be done so assign chores or tasks and come with an expectation that they will follow through
- Help kids identify the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards – instead of offering empty praise or bribing them, ask “What did you learn about yourself when you did that?”
Trauma-Informed Practice #3: Sharing Power Collaboratively
The root definition of collaboration is to “co-labor.” Sharing power collaboratively with kids means giving them a significant role to play in decision-making as you join them on their developmental journey.
There’s an old experiential activity called “Willow in the Wind” where a group stands in a tight circle around a person who stands in the middle with their arms folded over their chest and eyes closed. Everyone in the circle holds their arms out toward the person in the center with their palms open. When the person is ready, they gently lean back or forward as the group literally holds them up and passes them gently around. The activity is often used to illustrate or grow trust, but there’s a lot more going on. Both the person in the middle, and the supportive group are meeting each other through collaborative choices where what is being accomplished requires every person’s participation. Quite literally, it is a visual and tactile experience of a collaborative community.
This trauma-informed practice is instrumental in helping kids feel like they belong and that they have something important to give that the community needs. Ways to engage in this practice include;
- Brainstorm with kids ways that you can share responsibility or leadership roles – never assume kids can’t do something and always ask what they’d like to try
- Be resourceful, not a rescuer – don’t step in too quickly when kids struggle or you will rob them of the opportunity to learn how to problem solve and develop their skills
- Encourage kids to choose to do “the hard thing” – help them see and believe in themselves to do something bigger than they think they can, and then give them the support needed to try it
Trauma-Informed Practice #4: Developing Trustworthiness
The ability to trust oneself and others is at the root of every good relationship. When we develop trustworthiness in kids, it strengthens their ability to cope with anxiety and regulate their emotions.
This practice requires a commitment to communicating with clarity. Whether an assignment, a job role, a competency that requires the development of a certain skill, or boundaries in interpersonal relationships, clarity is essential.
Franklin Covey says that trust is a function of two things: Character – which includes your integrity, motive, and intent with people, and Competence – which includes your capabilities, skills, results, and track record. Kids today are perpetual eye witnesses to the character failings of adults in all levels of leadership and personal life. This trauma-informed practice will require a special kind of resilience because it involves radically re-building something that has been lost on a cultural and global level.
Ways to engage with this practice include;
- Be a living example of a trustworthy adult – follow through on commitments and promises that you make
- Show kids that you trust them more as they grow – give more responsibility based on where they are developmentally and how their skills are developing
- Respect kid’s need for privacy – honor their individuality and allow them to discover their “Self” as a separate and responsible human being
Trauma-Informed Practice #5: Prioritizing Empowerment and Skill Building
Power dynamics are at play everywhere and in all relationships. The question is not, “how do I control or gain power?” but “how can we share power in ways that are generative for both of us?” When students feel they have no power, it discourages their pursuit of autonomy and stifles their sense of agency. Agency, is a philosophical term that refers to one’s ability to act in any given situation. Kids who develop a healthy sense of agency believe they have control over their thoughts, feelings, and actions. This leads to feeling empowered and translates into positive self-talk like “I’ve got this!”
To employ this trauma-informed practice requires moving beyond giving permission for kids to try something new. True empowerment pays attention to the process needed to help kids develop the necessary skills to be successful. Giving kids an opportunity to grow requires an adult with an unwavering commitment to adapt and switch roles as needed from teacher to coach to mentor to cheerleader.
Ways to apply this practice include;
- Encourage kids to take risks – show them examples of people who have taken risks, failed, and tried again only to find success
- Remind them of past challenges they’ve overcome – most kids can’t see how strong and resilient they really are
- Teach problem-solving skills – it may not be rocket science, but there are step-by-step tools that people have developed to manage life challenges that kids need to learn and practice
- Validate and affirm successes – no need to patronize or offer empty praise, but recognize both small and big successes so they become part of the lexicon of self-talk that kids internalize
The mental health crisis our kids are experiencing is disturbing and pervasive. The sad and stark reality is that we are losing some of our kids and failing on many fronts. I believe that in the moments, days, weeks, and years to come, if we are going to address the seismic challenge before us, then we’ll need to deploy an army of educators, youth workers, parents, coaches, mentors, and more who understand and utilize trauma-informed practices with every kid they encounter.
Ritch Hochstetler, Chief Ideation Trailblazer at ULEAD