We know that trauma and the resulting fear changes our thinking. Remember that severe trauma produces a constant re-experiencing of the trauma, in the forms of flashbacks. So the trauma survivor is in effect constantly being re-traumatized. He lives in a state of fear.
When a person is living in a state of fear she develops trauma-based thinking. Trauma-based thinking is characterized by a tough, battle mentality. It is a "batten down the hatches, we are in for a storm" way of operating. The person is ready for the worst. She is constantly scanning the environment for sources of threat, and is not noticing much else. She is unable to notice her own inner feelings, and especially must put aside any feelings of vulnerability, weakness, softness of sadness. She develops an "us-vs.-them" mentality. Everything is black or white- war allows no subtlety. You can’t tolerate nuance or ambiguity when your life is on the line. People are either your friends (few) or your enemies (many). Bad things will happen soon, you will soon be attacked- so better to take the offensive now.
If we stop and imagine a situation of real danger, whether it be the proverbial lion attack, a war, or being mugged, we can see how such a method of thought is helpful and in fact necessary.
It is very important that we realize that this is how our kids are thinking, and that only by helping them feel safer and in less danger will they be able to move to any other kind of thought.
In addition, in a parallel process, this can also be how we are thinking.
When programs have become out of control, when there have been numerous staff injuries, when the staffing seems inadequate and the kids unmanageable, when the staff do not feel cherished by the administration and feel blamed by the larger system, we too fall into trauma-based thinking.
We batten down the hatches, and prepare for each day’s storm. We expect the worst from the kids and families. We look at the unit for sources of threat and don’t notice positive events. We turn away from our own feelings of being scared, sad and inadequate. We develop “us-vs.-them” thinking: staff vs. kids; child care workers vs. therapists; line staff vs. administration. Everything becomes black and white for us. The kid in front of us will probably hurt us soon so let’s restrain them now and get it over with.
What is the antidote for trauma based thinking? It is the same for the kids and for us: safety and connection.
Developing connections with each other can start with just talking about what is happening, our feelings, our vicarious traumatization, our exhaustion. Connections and safety can be knit throughout the organization, from the administration to every worker to the kids. Mechanisms can be created for fun, play and relaxation. Patterns and policies can be revised to increase safety and allow for the possibility of heart-to-heart relationships.
If we focus on creating an atmosphere of safety and connection, over time we can all relax. And when we are using less trauma-based thinking, and are more flexible, vulnerable and positive, the kids will be better able to thrive and grow.
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