Why Trauma-Informed care works for everyone, from the individual to whole society level

Last Month, the Youth Endowment Foundation and Home Office announced a £5.8m fund for research on trauma-informed practice in schools. Also this week, the heartbreaking news from Croydon shows how necessary it is for us all to give children our attention and care. 

At The Kids Network, our mentoring programme was developed with trauma informed best practice at the heart. Trauma-informed practice gives us a framework to provide that care and attention, working to establish protective factors and build towards resilience. We believe that to build with trauma informed structures is to build a world which serves everyone, prioritising connection and humanity – which is sorely needed. Much of our learning on trauma-informed best practice comes from Nicola Lester, who delivers training with Partnership for Young London 

Other resources we like: 

UK trauma council 

National Association of Therapeutic parents 

Trauma Foundation 

The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk 

Cambridgeshire Therapeutic Thinking video: Why I am rude 

Anna Freud video on Childhood Trauma and the Brain 

Rita Pierson: Every kid needs a champion 

Trauma and the Nervous System: A Polyvagal Perspective 

 

What is trauma? 

 

Statistically, over half of us has experienced trauma, defined as a singular or ongoing event(s) that cause experiences of toxic stress – it’s between 50% and 70% depending on where you look. 

Trauma can be defined as ‘a toxic condition, a mixture of intense anxiety, absolute helplessness and a loss of control.’ Different peoples’ experiences and what is normal varies depending on the person, and ultimately it’s the perception of the experience that will determine the effect it has on a person. Trauma, then, is what happens inside us as a result of what happens outside us – it’s an experience, not an event. 

Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, tells us that the way to heal from trauma is to have an experience that is directly in opposition to the traumatic one. So for example, if we felt totally powerless during the trauma, to have control and feel empowered enables us to heal from that. 

There are 2 main theories of trauma:  

The glass jar theory: this tells us that when we’re born, we have a glass jar inside us. As we navigate life, stressors fill it up. That jar can overflow, meaning we experience a toxic stress reaction. We need to find ways to empty the jar. For some people, jar will overflow (experience and stress reaction) when others won’t. 

The theory of shattered assumptions: dictates that when we’re born, we believe that our world is good and safe place. Something then happens which shatters that and means you have to create a new worldview which accounts for that. This theory speaks to how people who have experienced trauma develop resilience. 

Resilience is not endurance! For us, it means our capacity to understand, communicate and meet our own needs including during periods of stress. 

So, what does a stress reaction look and feel like? 

We’ve all been there. Rising temperature as our blood vessels open and heart rate increases, butterflies in our stomach as our digestive system shuts down, adrenaline coursing through our limbs tensing up our muscles and making us light-headed. Clenching fists, dry mouth, fast blinking and a closing-up throat. 

Polyvagal theory is a relatively new area of study that has been called ‘the science of safety.’ It explores how our nervous systems are continually scanning our surroundings for signs of safety or threat – this is an unconscious process called neurocepting. Developing an understanding of this can help us to regulate our own bodies, and other people’s, when experiencing a stress reaction – we can learn ways to empty our jars, if you like. 

The vagus nerve is responsible for initiating a stress reaction. It does this outside of conscious thought as part of the area of our brains called our brain stem and limbic system. We can’t think our way out of a stress reaction! 

Currently, living is traumatic for many people in the UK. Whether due to living in poverty; experiencing racism, transphobia, ableism; the conditions many of us are living is cause unhealthy levels of toxic stress. 

We are not therapists. There are many incredible therapeutically-trained professionals and services supporting our community with dedication, and we’re so grateful to work as part of that network so that children live the lives they deserve. We’re excited to see trauma-informed care on the rise in schools, and think the approach would be effective in any sector as a way to engage with individuals or groups.  

So, whether you are a mentor, policy professional or private sector worker, read on to learn about the 6 trauma informed principles and explore how you can embed them in your day to day. 

Supporting Coping: identifying wins, however small. Asking questions about immediate needs, providing information, support and reassurance. Creating space to talk about any difficulties. 

Thinking points: 

  • How could you create authentic space to talk about what’s difficult?  
  • Do you lead with questions, being curious rather than seeking to be understood? 

Identity and Content: recognise, learn about and celebrate who they are as individual. 

Thinking points: 

  • What opportunities do you have to learn about people who are different to you? 
  • How can you model pride in your identity, and cultivate that in others? 

Building Strengths: acknowledge and build on their strength and resilience. 

Thinking points: 

  • How easily do you recognise that having experienced toxic stress requires a huge amount of strength which should be celebrated? What examples can you think of of this? 
  • What could you put in place to centre peoples’ strength? 

Facilitating Connections: connecting to social support networks. Space to talk about what they might need from these networks; exploring healthy relationships. 

Thinking points: 

  • How do you create and signpost to strong community connections? 
  • What does a healthy relationship look and feel like? What is it not? How could you describe that to someone else? 

Choice and Control: doing things with not for, collaboration and co-planning 

Thinking points: 

  • At what points in your decision-making processes can you share power, planning together rather than alone? 
  • How can you communicate boundaries and expectations so that people have clarity on the remit within which they’re functioning? 

Emotional safety: ensuring the person or people you’re working with feel safe, secure and able to be themselves and express their needs. 

Thinking points: 

  • What biases or expectations might you have of people that prevent them from being themselves? 
  • What does safety feel like? 

Embedding these into mentoring, or any engagement with any human regardless of whether they have experienced trauma, has profound effects. People are empowered and develop the tools to advocate for themselves. They’re useful when thinking about self-talk too! We recommend doing some journalling on the above questions to think about what you can take away from this – and we’d love to hear how you’re planning to bring this thinking into your life! 

On physical safety  

Finally, something we think is really cool. The fact that our nervous systems are neurocepting with each other to identify signs of safety or threat means that we have the ability to regulate our own nervous systems, thereby regulate others. In other words: we can, through being in our bodies, help someone we’re with who’s experiencing stress. 

There’s so much more to learn about this, so we’ll keep it simple here and share a few activities that you can do to down-regulate; meaning move out of a stress reaction, sometimes called ‘fight or flight’, and back into what’s called your ‘window of tolerance.’ 

  • Find ‘glimmers’ – moments in life that connect us to a feeling of pure joy e.g. playing with a dog, being creative, going rollerskating… 
  • Singing - alone, or in harmony with others 
  • Going into nature   
  • Talking about boundaries and setting clear expectations   
  • Mindfulness, breathing, yoga, affirmations   

 

Our mentors are trained in trauma-informed practice and learn exercises to regulate their nervous systems as part of our certificate in child-led mentoring. Developing this skill as a London-wide community is so needed when trauma and violence is embedded in our lives. To come together and care for each other in a trauma-informed way will enable us to, together, create a world in which children can live the lives they deserve.  

Click the above resources or become a mentor to find out more! 

 

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