Helping to Reverse the Effects of Childhood Trauma

Abuse, neglect, loss, disaster. Trauma can come in many forms, and it impacts every individual in unique ways. Children, in particular, don’t know how to unlock their own inherent resiliency or access the tools needed to handle trauma in constructive ways. It might seem obvious that youth who grow up in a hostile home environment, witness violence, or experience other traumatizing events will be at a disadvantage, but recent studies are showing that there’s much more to it than that.

Emerging research has documented the relationship between exposure to traumatic events in childhood and mental health disorders, chronic physical illness, impaired immune systems, unhealthy and risky behaviors, and obesity in adulthood. Science is demonstrating that adverse childhood experiences will, in fact, manifest later in life as medical health conditions. In addition, studies of youth in the juvenile justice system reveal high rates of personal histories of trauma. Individuals with extensive trauma in their past, when left unaddressed, experience poor health and well-being.

Due to this new understanding, many health and social service agencies are working towards becoming “trauma-informed agencies.” Staff who work in these fields are learning to recognize and respond to the impact of trauma on mental health and physical well-being. While Middle Earth has always shown respect for, listened to, and valued our youth, the nonprofit is trying to create a more trauma-sensitive environment for clients.

Difficult past experiences negatively impact the choices that young students are making because trauma has a significant effect on their developing brain, and the trauma causes them to operate in “survival mode.” Harsh disciplinary practices in educational systems or intimidating practices in the justice system can be re-traumatizing to children. We can’t expect students with traumatic pasts to intuitively make good choices towards a positive future.

Studies show that the way to combat these trauma-inflicted adverse reactions is to provide safe environments, to surround students with positive influencers and to help students build resiliency. As a result, Middle Earth’s trauma-informed subcommittee is making changes at Middle Earth to reflect more sensitivity to trauma in youth, such as:

- Training new staff members in the latest research on trauma

- Reviewing programming to improve interactions with youth and the greater community

- Updating policy manuals so that all procedures are sensitive to possible trauma

- Changing consequences for negative actions

- Updating intake forms for new clients and the language used to explain programs to remove negative labels or stereotypes

- Creating anxiety-safe zones in facilities (for example, the front room has been repainted in soothing colors, fitted with soft lighting, and filled with fidget toys as a way to keep youth calm)

Our next step forward is creating a policy for identifying and supporting trauma-affected students. Middle Earth is not a mental health clinic, so we cannot treat youth, but we can screen for trauma and share those results with the student and connect them with other agencies that can address their mental or physical health. Middle Earth partners with many local organizations, and we are working together as a wider community to move towards stopping and reversing developmental trauma.

Kyle Vandenberg has been chairing Middle Earth’s trauma-informed subcommittee for over a year now. This year, in light of all the unrest taking place in our nation, Middle Earth has also appointed three staff members to head up official task forces on the subcommittee, responsible for overseeing specific social areas of interest. Jack Teters is heading up an immigration rights task force, Olivia Ajiake is heading up a racial injustice task force, and Laura Cavanagh is heading up an LGBTQ+ task force. The subcommittee is helping Middle Earth staff to stay mindful and inclusive, as well as helping them to elevate the agency’s collective consciousness about these important issues.

“We are really grateful for the support of our Board of Directors,” stated Vandenberg. “They were so interested in the idea that they asked our staff to give them a training about trauma-informed agencies. They were really enthusiastic about changing our policies to create safe environments, procedures and language for trauma-affected youth.”

Middle Earth is committed to being a pillar of positivity in the lives of our youth, to ensuring our environments feel safe for all clients, and to believing the best and unearthing the potential in every student. Understanding how trauma in childhood can impact a youth’s behavior, interactions, and choices helps staff to understand youth in a more holistic way. We get a better picture of their situation and ways we can help them to develop resiliency.

Additional Resources

You can learn more about the trauma-informed movement here.

Resilient Youth of Somerset County provides community-based training for schools, agencies, and police departments in Somerset County to help them understand trauma and start the transition to becoming a trauma-informed agency.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network was created by Congress in 2000 as part of the Children’s Health Act to raise the standard of care and increase access to services for children and families who experience or witness traumatic events. The agency provides a lot of great resources and information about trauma in children.

Traumasensitive is the website of Dr. Melissa Sadin, who offers a great collection of books and resources to help train teachers, law enforcement, and others in shaping their agencies to be trauma-informed.