Trauma 101

by Kate Swanson, MSW, LICSW

Kate Swanson

Imagine you are camping with your family in the woods. It’s dark. You are sitting around the campfire, calm and relaxed. You hear a snap—is something coming towards you? You hear a low growl—your body tenses, you grip the chair. Two glowing eyes, a large figure appears—a grizzly bear enters your campsite. What happens next? Your brain’s alarm system turns on, alerting your body of imminent danger, telling you to do something—quickly!—to survive.

Your stress response system typically sends you into one of three responses:

  1. You grab whatever is near you and tackle the bear to the ground. (Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie The Revenant.)
  2. You run, as fast as you can, probably to your vehicle that can take you far, far away from the campsite to the nearest hotel.
  3. You remain a statue in your chair, hoping the bear won’t see you and stay focused on the food it seeks instead.

When you are successful in fighting off the bear, fleeing to safety, or freezing until the bear goes back into the woods, your brain’s alarm system eventually turns back off, assuring you that you are safe again. Your breathing slows, and you return to a calm, relaxed state. This is how a normal stress response system functions.

But what happens if the bear comes home every night? It’s been drinking again (snap). It starts yelling (growl). Then two glowing eyes, a large figure appears—we don’t want to visualize what might happen next. When this scene happens repeatedly, your brain’s alarm system doesn’t have a chance to turn back off. It remains on high alert because at any given point you might need to fight, flee, or freeze to survive. This is how a toxic stress response system functions.

Many of the youth you encounter in ministry have experienced some sort of traumatic experience. The National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) defines a traumatic experience as “a frightening, dangerous or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity.” NCTSN states approximately one in four youth have experienced trauma. For some of your youth, this experience is similar to the example of the bear in the woods—an isolated incident that has very little risk of occurring again. But for many, the traumatic experiences are severe and pervasive, defined as complex trauma.

Complex trauma occurs when the exposure is widespread. It often begins at young and vulnerable developmental stages and frequently occurs within the primary caregiving/attachment relationship.  Physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect and exposure to domestic violence are all examples of complex trauma that threaten a child’s ability to form secure and positive relationships with others, as well as develop a positive sense of self.

Think of some of the most challenging behaviors you encounter in ministry that make it difficult to form positive relationships with kids:

  • “He never listens.”
  • “She’s always trying to pick a fight.”
  • “They mouth off.”
  • “His head is always down; he’s disengaged.”
  • “She just left in the middle of a lesson.”
  • “They don’t care.”

When a toxic stress response system forms as a result of complex trauma, the brain’s alarm system stays on. These youth are on constant alert for danger. At any point you or a peer might become dangerous, threatening, or rejecting. So they are always ready to fight, flee or freeze to protect themselves. Imagine how difficult it might be to focus on what a pastor or youth director is saying when they have a constant alarm clock bell ringing in their head.

Youth who are experiencing complex trauma have learned that relationships are dangerous, so they are going to work really hard to push away trusted adults and peers to keep them at a distance. And  very often, it works. They have learned that reenacting the traumatic relationship pattern can evoke the same type of response in others that they’re used to experiencing at home. The brilliant, creative and maladaptive ways they are trying to survive within relationships often leave others feeling frustrated, helpless, hopeless and exhausted. These feelings often lead trusted adults, like you, to respond to challenging behaviors in ways that end up reinforcing the traumatic relationship patterns.

So how do you assure youth that they can believe in the secure connection, belonging and safety your ministry offers? How do you get out of a traumatic relationship cycle? It starts with a simple mindset shift. When faced with challenging behaviors from the most difficult youth, pause and take a deep breath, and instead of wondering what is wrong with them, consider what has happened to them. A simple change in your thought pattern brings you to a place of empathy and compassion. From this mindset, you can explore these practical strategies to manage challenging behaviors and help youth believe safety, connection and belonging are possible.

  1. Ask yourself, “What brain state is this person in?” Are they in a survival state, an emotional state, or an executive state? And what can you do to help them move from survival to emotional to executive? (These concepts are taken from the Conscious Discipline methodology, a trauma-informed, brain state model for social-emotional functioning.)

When youth are in a survival state, their fight, flight, freeze response system is activated. They aren’t able to identify feelings, and most definitely aren’t able to problem-solve or take in new information. When youth are in this state, they need safety. Adults should start by simply noticing what is happening for the youth, to bring conscious awareness to this unconscious survival state. “I notice your head is down.” “I noticed when your peer made that comment, you ran out of the room.” “I noticed you swore at me when I asked you to pay attention.” This act of “noticing” may need to continue for a while, until the youth can acknowledge what you are saying—usually cued through making eye contact, nodding their head or verbally acknowledging that what you noticed is accurate. It is important to keep your composure in this state, create safety however you can and attempt to bring youth into their emotional state. 

When youth are able to move from survival into their emotional state, youth need connection. Here’s where you can start to validate what they might have been feeling and offer support and acknowledgment of those feelings. “I wonder if you were feeling worried.” “I wonder if you were feeling threatened.” “I wonder if you were feeling angry.” You can offer empathy and encouragement and start to offer simple choices to help bring youth into their executive state. “Would you like me to sit with you for a few more minutes, or are you ready to join the large group again?” “Would you like to take a walk to calm down or take a few deep breaths with me?” Once regulated, you can move into the executive state of problem-solving.

Once youth are in their executive state of functioning, they are now in a place of being able to problem-solve, learn new skills and practice those skills. Appropriate consequences can be discussed in this state. You can offer solutions with positive intent and work together as a team to avoid future problems. “It seems like it is difficult to sit next to that peer; let’s move you to a different spot.” “Swearing is not allowed in our youth group, can we come up with a different way to show your frustration?” Often adults jump to responding to youth as if they are in their executive state of functioning and find that consequences (or the threat of consequences) just do not work if youth are in an earlier brain state. It is important to move through the earlier stages to achieve safety, connection, and belonging.

  1. Respond with compassion, sensitivity and warmth, not punishment. When our emotional selves are triggered, it is easy to respond to challenging behaviors by wanting to punish youth. Bring yourself back to that place of empathy before responding to avoid inducing shame and reenacting the traumatic relationship cycle.
  2. Provide consistency and stability. Structure is healing for youth who have experienced trauma. Having a predictable routine and structure to your youth group gatherings will naturally provide safety. Being consistent and stable in your response to youth also promotes healing.
  3. Avoid labeling children negatively. Labels like “weird,” “messed up,” “lazy” or even “asshole” are easy to come out of our mouths. But it is hard to get that label out of your mind in interacting with youth once it has been established. Bring yourself back to a lens of wondering what has happened to a youth with difficult behavior to avoid continuing to view them in a negative light.
  4. Be concrete in offering suggestions for managing emotions. Have you ever tried saying “calm down” to someone who is frustrated or angry? It usually doesn’t work. Stating specific techniques like taking a deep breath or going for a walk together produce more helpful results.

And finally, please take care of yourself. I’m sure you have all heard statements about not being able to fill others from an empty cup or remembering to put on your own oxygen mask first. As cliche as these phrases might sound, they are also true. Find ways to care for yourself and recharge, especially after difficult interactions. Take time to process with a supervisor or a peer. Youth need you to help them out of traumatic relationship cycles, and it only takes one positive, secure relationship with a caring adult to do so.


Kate Swanson, MSW, LICSW is the Steele County Clinical Director at Fernbrook Family Center in Owatonna, MN. She is trained in Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TFCBT), and is passionate about helping children heal from trauma, and educating the community about trauma and its effects. Kate lives in Owatonna with her husband, Chris, who is the Director of Junior High Ministry at Trinity Lutheran Church, and their two spunky kiddos-Leona and Calvin.

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