Building Connections: Understanding Trauma
Session Objectives: The goal of this session is to help you better understand how trauma can impact the way we engage with others as we attempt to build relationships.
Read the Transcript of the Training
Chances are that the young adult in our program has experienced trauma. Past traumatic experiences can cause them to respond to you in unexpected ways. You will be better equipped to connect with them in a more meaningful way by learning about some of the common issues that young adults from foster care have dealt with.
Understanding Trauma and the Lasting Impacts of Experiencing Foster Care
We don’t necessarily know the full history of every young person who joins our programs. Sometimes we may know close to nothing at all. But what we do know is that every kid who has gone through foster care has experienced trauma- if not before foster care, then in going into foster care.
If you had a rough family = trauma
If you had a great family and got taken away = trauma
But the impacts of trauma don’t usually end when the event is over.
One of the impacts of trauma on the brain is that it can impact development and maturity – so an 18 year old may act and make decisions more like a 15 year old would.
In the Body Keeps Score, the world’s leading trauma treatment expert, Bessel van der Kolk says, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
In the aftermath of trauma, lies are born. Lies about who they are, what they’re worth, and what is safe.
Maybe they believe they deserved to be hurt.
When children endure trauma, they do not blame others for what happened, they blame themselves. As they grow older, they may feel the guilt and shame for what has happened to them. They may think they have lost others’ respect because of their past and carry a label of shame with them.
Or maybe they got the message that their pain doesn’t matter.
But we know the truth. That their suffering is unjust and their pain matters. God considers our pain. As Psalm 56:8 says, “You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.”
By valuing their feelings, we can help undo the lies and replace them with the healing power of the truth.
And by listening we can help them to feel valued and known.
Dr. Diane Langberg, who is globally recognized for her 45 years of clinical work with trauma victims says in her book, Suffering and the Heart of God:
“Talking is absolutely necessary for recovery. Even though words are inadequate, they must be spoken. To remain silent is to fail to honor the event and memory. By honoring the memory, I mean speaking the truth about it, saying it really happened, saying it was really evil, and saying that it really did damage. It dishonors victims when we are silent about their experience or pretend it did not occur or was not important. Talking says I am here, what happened was wrong, I am damaged by it, justice is needed, and so is care for my broken heart.”
What those who have experienced trauma need is a safe place to share authentically and at their own pace, even if it only comes out in broken disorganized pieces.
Having a safe place to tell the truth can restore broken dignity. To believe that their story is important enough to be spoken and listened to, gives it value. It gives weight to the sometimes unnoticed impact and pain they may have experienced. It connects them to the listener.
We don’t want to push our young adults to open up though. Timing is vitally important as is having the power of when to tell their story, to whom, and how. Trauma is disempowering and destructive.
By giving them the choice of who, when, where, and how they share – our young adults will be able to share in a way that is empowering and healing.
You can’t control if they decide to open up to you. But you can let them know you are a safe place to share and that their hurts matter.
One of the most powerful ways to help someone open up is to share your own struggles. That’s not easy. We all struggle with being vulnerable and having the courage to open up to someone, especially someone new.
Think of a time that you shared something vulnerable and it was later used against you. How did that make you feel?
The young adults you will connect with are going to struggle even more. When someone has experienced betrayal and broken trust in the past, it feels risky to open up and share. They may fear being judged and fear for their reputation.
Comparison is a problem for everyone.
We often look at others outside and compare it to our insides’. If you are on social media, you probably have experienced this too. We only see the highlights, the things they want us to see – but we know what’s going on in our lives. The messy closets we never open, the internal struggles we never share… and it can leave us feeling less than. Being vulnerable breaks through the veneer of comparison.
As we encounter the young adults we care for, we can provide a safe place where they feel they won’t be judged. By opening up and being honest about our lives, we can be good examples of how to navigate sharing appropriately.
If the young adults we serve believe that they won’t be judged and condemned, they will approach us more confidently knowing that we are there to help them.
And by helping them I don’t mean by providing answers and solutions, I mean by providing a place to feel less alone in their imperfections.
When we feel safe with others, we find the space to grow and achieve more than we ever thought possible.
Young adults who’ve experienced trauma may believe lies about themselves that can get in the way of having healthy relationships with themselves and others. By offering a safe place for them to talk at their own time and pace, we can help them on the road to healing. And sometimes we just need to help them break through the misconceptions that come from comparing our insides to others’ outsides. Being vulnerable about ourselves can open the door.
Books Mentioned / Additional Reading
Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores
by Diane Langberg