What Does a Trauma-Informed Church Look Like? Part 2

I started this series in a response to a question via email. As I said in part 1, I know the answer is complex . It’s not a one-size fits all answer. There are some aspects you can see in a trauma-informed church. There are some things you can feel. There are some words you will hear. There are also some practices that will be followed by all leadership in a trauma-informed church.

It starts with trauma-informed training

I’m one of those people who will chase you down the hall and tell church leaders that they need trauma-training. I’m also one of those people who get the door slammed in their face (metaphorically). Leaders for some reason don’t want to invest in training. They also don’t want to ask their staff and volunteers to go through training. I know. It’s a huge time commitment. It is. It’s also an investment.

The parable of The spilled milk

Let’s say you put an open gallon of milk on the table in your kitchen. You hope it won’t spill. You pray it won’t spill. You light a candle and pray it won’t spill. Then it spills. You sop up the mess and tell the child who knocked it over not to do that again, then you leave the gallon again. It gets spilled again. You tell the child again not to knock the milk. The child knocks it again. You tell the child again. What’s the real problem? The adult didn’t take responsibility to put the cap on and put it away.

I see the the same thing happen in churches, homes, schools, and homeschool co-ops. They pray the milk won’t be spilled. In other words, they hope and pray that kids who have had trauma or capital letter syndromes won’t have meltdowns. The kids do. The adults tell the kids to stop. There are behavior charts, stickers, lectures, and Bible verses hurled at them. They meltdown again. They can’t regulate. What needs to happen? The adults, leaders, and parents need to cap the milk by becoming trauma-informed. When leadership is trauma-informed and begin to lead with this in mind, the milk wont’ spill as often.

Start with the Five Bs

The Five B’s Affected by Trauma

  • Brain
  • Biology
  • Body
  • Beliefs
  • Behavior

Brain – Children from hard places have altered brain development and an overactive amygdala. It’s as if the child is being chased by a bear all the time.

Biology – Children from hard places have altered neurochemistry.

Body – This could include learning delays, developmental delays, and sensory issues (which may be mistaken for willfulness and defiance). The child may be frustrated and disconnected.

Beliefs -Abuse says, “You don’t matter.” Neglect says, “You don’t exist.”

Behavior – The child may have an altered ability to self-regulate in response to stressors.

“If a child has had trauma, it’s as though his brain has a bunch of loose wires that don’t connect. If I were back in computer programming, I could imagine that for every if-then statement, I would get an error message: ‘Does not compute.’”-

How to Have Peace When Your Kids Are in Chaos

Understanding the effects trauma has on child (or adult) is a start. Some of the church leaders who have emailed me want their churches to be trauma-informed to better serve the needs of the kiddos (and adults) in the body. Some of you are running into the same sorts of road blocks I do. Time. Money. Leaders don’t want to ask their volunteers to have to invest more time, to come out one more night a week, to watch videos, or host a conference. So the milk gets spilled again and again. And the children get reprimanded for being dysregulated because they CANNOT do what’s expected of them.

For those who want Trauma-informed churches, schools, and co-ops

If you want to start the conversation with your church leaders, teachers, or homeschool co-op, you can begin with the printable resource on How Trauma Affects Kids. Go start the conversation with some facts and go from there.

Want to continue the conversation? Hop on over to our podcast page and listen to the series on the Five Bs Affected by Trauma. These are coffee break podcasts, no longer than fifteen minutes each. Share them with the people who serve your kiddos.

If you’re interested in the free e-course- Five Things , click on the graphic below:

Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part 3

I’ve been writing and recording a series on the “Five Bs Affected by Trauma.” You can follow along on the podcast and get your free printable resource here.

“An infant born into neglect learns slightly different lessons. For him, the bonding cycle is short circuited. Instead of experiencing need, high arousal,  gratification, and trust in others, he experiences need, high arousal to the point of exhaustion, self-gratification, and trust in self/self-reliance. Eventually this child develops less need, less arousal, more immediate self-gratification, and no involvement with others. He is likely to develop habits to gratify himself that may include rocking, head banging, sucking on his hands, hair pulling, etc.. He may grow up detached from others, appearing vacant and empty. He has few emotions and desires no interaction from others, even acting if no others are present in a room.

He has effectively learned that he can —- and needs—– to trust himself.”- Adopting the Hurt Child

One of the most visible effects of trauma is how is how it affects the body – medically, through sensory processing issues, or detachment.

Humanism tells us that everything is done by the power of a man. It teaches that man is able to sustain himself without God, without the Spirit. Studies on attachment beg to differ. Man is not sufficient on his own. He can not sustain body, soul, and spirit alone. The spirit of the child vacates when there is no attachment.

“Infants deprived of their mothers during the first year of life for more than five months deteriorate progressively. They become lethargic, their motility retarded, their weight and growth arrested. Their face becomes vacuous; their activity is restricted to atypical, bizarre finger movements. they are unable to sit, stand, walk or talk.”- Rene Spitz M.D.

Children who have been traumatized in infancy and early childhood cannot be expected to behave or respond to stimuli in the same way as children who have not.

Body –altered physical development and impacted ability to process sensory inputs.

Dr. Dana Johnson has described developmental delays and growth disturbances as one month of linear growth loss for every three months that children remain in an orphanage.

What we see in the physical are:

  • inability to process sensory inputs. 
  • Learning delays
  • Developmental delays

I’ve been writing and recording a series on the the five bs affected by trauma. You can follow along on the podcast and get your free printable resource here.

Sensory Issues- may be mistaken for willfulness and defiance, may up frustrated and disconnected.

Sensory over responsivity- OH NO!- you touch him on the elbow and he flies off the handle.

Sensory under responsivity – Ho Hum…. The child reacts less intensely to stimuli than other children. Slumps. 

Sensory Seeking- MORE! MORE!  Craves stimulus/sensation. Vigorous activity.

Sensory discrimination dysfunction- HUH? Difficulty discerning input. Shorts in the winter. Pants and cowboy boots when it is 90. Doesn’t know how he got that scrape. 

Most kids who have experienced trauma have some sensory issues. This doesn’t mean they need an official diagnosis of SPD. A great resource if you want to know more is The Out of Sync Child.

You can learn more on the Podcast series on the “Five Bs Affected by Trauma” and in the book How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos (and the accompanying course).

Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part 2

“A scar is evidence of a wound, but also evidence that we can heal.” – Scott McClellan

“I didn’t think it would be this hard.”

“My child’s behaviors are out of control.”

“He got kicked off the school bus AGAIN.”

“He keeps punching kids in line.”

“The whole house is like a war zone.”

“I thought I could do this, but I don’t know if I can. It’s just too hard.”

I’ve heard these statements along with pleas for help from countless parents. I have offered to come into the home and do some observation, as well as get some parenting tools that work into the hands of the parents. It seems as if every time, the parent says, “Oh, I don’t know. He/she is so manipulative” — as if the child will pull the wool over my eyes (as he may do with some professionals or teachers), or as if their situation is so unique and so individual that I won’t be able to grasp it. 

It is in this pit of “aloneness” that satan likes to keep us. No one else struggles like you. Nobody understands. We adoptive/foster parents may feel as if we have slipped an Alfred Hitchcock and are captives who will never escape. And the one who is to be banished to the pit at the end of age tries to keep us equally isolated. 

Fortunately, that pit is not where we belong, nor do we need to stay there any longer. There is hope. Isaiah says that God’s people perish for lack of knowledge. To move forward with our kids, we must first have knowledge.

SEcond B affected by Trauma


Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development.  I covered the first B affected here. Today, I’d like to talk about the second B – Biology.

Biology — altered neurochemistry. Complex trauma can cause a variety of issues: sensorimotor development problems, hypersensitivity to physical contact, somatization, increased medical problems, and problems with coordination and balance.

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that help our bodies think, feel, and move. However, the levels of key neurotransmitters in many children from hard places are often high, too low and/or out of balance.

Neurotransmitters (NTs) are naturally occurring chemicals that transmit information between the cells (called neurons) throughout your body. Over 5o NTs are present in the nervous system, but only a handful are currently measurable and understood in relation to our health and functioning.

Neurotransmitters or NTs control the on and off switches in the nervous system. They help define our moods, behaviors, and health.

There are two primary types of neurotransmitters:

  1. Excitatory NTs which increase the likelihood that a neuron’s signals are sent. Excitatory NTs are responsible for providing energy, motivation, mental cognition, and other activities that require brain and body activity. We refer to these as the GAS PEDAL. The gas pedal can get stuck.
  2. Inhibitory NTs decrease the likelihood that a neuron’s signals are sent. Activation of inhibitory NTS causes a chemical change within the neuron that oppose the effects of excitatory signals. Inhibitory NTs are responsible for calming the mind and body, inducing sleep, and filtering out unnecessary excitatory signals. We refer to these as the BRAKE PEDAL. The brake pedal can get stuck as well.

A balance between the levels of inhibitory and excitatory NTs is necessary for optimal health, yet many children from hard places show significant, sometimes profound, imbalances in their neurochemistry. This can result from a number of primary causes, such as chronic stress, poor diet, exposure to neurological toxins (e.g. heavy metals, chemicals) and genetics.

A growing body of research has documented significant alterations in hormones and NTs in children with histories of abuse, maternal deprivation and neglect.- Dr. Karyn Purvis

Want to know a bit more on how biology is affected by trauma? Listen to the edition of Positive Adoption below!

Want a free printable resource to share? You can download “How Trauma Affects Kids” on our Printable Resource Page.

Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part I – The Brain

“Too often, parents and experts look at behavioral disorders as they existed separate from sensory impairments; separate from attention difficulties; separate from early childhood deprivation, neurological damage, attachment disorders, post traumatic stress and so on.”

The Connected Child

By taking the time to examine what issues are driving a behavioral disorder, we gain a foundation of understanding. When we learn the science — the “why” behind a child’s behavior — our reactions will be tempered. 

When a child is behaving poorly, we often try to treat the symptoms rather than getting to the root of the issue. I know I’ve been guilty of that on several occasions. Of course, this approach doesn’t work; it never does. Just as removing a bottle of whiskey from the liquor cabinet won’t cure your father’s alcoholism, focusing on a child’s behavior won’t cure their attachment issues. There is a deeper problem we have to address.

“Chronic trauma is a lifestyle that is marked with traumatic events.

– Nurturing Adoptions

Science says there are five Bs affected by trauma, and we cannot overlook them. In kids from hard places, behavioral disorders are a symptom of the effect trauma has had on their development. 

Negative behaviors will be taken care of once a child is securely attached. To achieve that, we must start with the five Bs and work our way out from there.

Brainaltered brain development and an overactive amygdala. 

Children from hard places have altered brain development and an overactive amygdala. It’s as if the child is being chased by a bear all the time. As Deborah D. Gray explains in Nurturing Adoptions

“Neurobiologically, trauma shapes the developing brain. Early high stress is especially damaging because brain development is at an early stage.” In Emotional Development, Alan Sroufe makes a similar point when he describes the brain as experience-expectant and experience-dependent. Neglect deprives the experience-dependent brain of the experiences needed to develop the brain structures that support and stretch positive mood states. Neglected babies do not build the structures in the brain that allow for self-soothing or smooth processing through highly arousing experiences.

Think of a brain like a house with an upstairs and a downstairs. At birth the downstairs brain is developed. It houses things like breathing and survival mode.

Life in the Downstairs Brain

“It’s time to get up and eat breakfast.”

“Could you please pick up your socks?”

“No, the math equation isn’t solved correctly. Try again.”

You ask or correct, and in response, the child retorts, “Why are you yelling at me? You always yell at me!”

Have your children ever said this to you? How about when you are talking in a normal tone and they are yelling? Confusing, huh?

These kids seem to be hearing things differently than the rest of us — and they are. They are operating in their downstairs brain, which means they are seeing things through the lens of hypervigilance. They are in survival mode. Noises sound louder. The amygdala, which resides in the downstairs brain, is hard at work looking for danger. Its switch gets stuck in the “on” position, leaving the child in a constant, adrenaline-fueled state of fight or flight. 

“Chronic fear is like a schoolyard bully that scares children into behaving poorly.”

– The Connected Child

Even if they aren’t in any actual danger, the child does not feel safe — and in some ways, felt safety is more important than genuine safety. When a child feels safe, the primitive downstairs brain lets its guard down and allows other portions of the brain to operate. Higher learning can occur when a child feels safe. He can understand reason, logic, and choices. 

When children come from traumatic beginnings, their primitive brain remains the driver until the child feels safe. These kids are perpetually on guard. They don’t remember fun events or joyful times because they weren’t fully present. Their brains instructed them to survive these experiences in whatever shape or form they could. In survival mode, they didn’t have the capacity to really enjoy themselves.

The upstairs brain, on the other hand, is completely different. As The Whole-Brained Child explains, the upstairs brain is “made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts-particularly the ones directly behind your forehead. Unlike your more basic downstairs brain, the upstairs is more evolved and can give you a fuller perspective on your world.” It’s sophisticated as opposed to primitive. This is where the creative process lives — imagining, thinking, planning. Logic lives here, too.

Children who live in the downstairs brain or survival mode are bossed about by their will — minus the intellect or common sense that reside in the upstairs brain. They are impulsive. As our pediatrician said of our eldest when she became extremely mobile at five and a half months — “maximum mobility, minimum common sense.” Thankfully, with proper brain development, the intellect catches up, and the child develops impulse control. 

Some call this “will.” Charlotte Mason, for instance, speaks of children having a strong will when they are able to govern their will. In other words, the more the child (or adult for that matter) can control his will and boss it around, the more he is living in his upstairs brain.

Some Practical Suggestions

So, how do we help a child integrate the upstairs brain when he demands to stay downstairs? 

First, remember that your child’s brain is a work in progress. The upstairs brain is still developing. It won’t happen overnight. To start, you can help him climb the stairs once and check it out. The more often he does that, the more he will use it. The more he uses it, the more it will grow. 

Here’s another suggestion: Give him assignments that require him to use the upstairs brain. He needs problems to solve, and he will encounter plenty in his everyday life. Give him the space to work them out on his own instead of doing it for him. This is where planning, creativity, and logic come into play. 

And I do mean play. LEGO building. Block towers. Drawing. Writing stories. Planning out a plot. 

My son who loves to write (he just wouldn’t admit it publicly, so keep that to yourself, ok?) loves story prompts. We did a semester of them, usually a few times a week. I wrote the prompt on the whiteboard, and he wrote the rest of the story. When he got stuck in a rut and everyone died at the end of each story, I put my foot down and asked him to think of some new endings. No one lived happily ever after, but they lived. 

Kids today have so little time to be creative. Soccer practice is good, but it doesn’t replace the need for creative play. 

In the upstairs brain, YELLING can become conversation:

• “How did you build that? Tell me about it.”

• “How do you think you can solve that problem?”

• “What could you do differently?”

• “What could you do to make your day easier tomorrow?”

Just remember, these questions cannot be asked in the middle of a meltdown. You must make opportunities when things are calm and happy. It is tempting to enjoy the calm and slip away to do something else (like the dishes), but take advantage of the quiet to connect with your child and watch him work his upstairs brain!

Fear is a powerful dictator. It rules the child without love, logic, or reason. It’s easy to look at the behavior as willful disobedience. I know I have. But for us adoptive/foster parents to help our children rewire their brains, we must rewire ours. If we see these behaviors as brain issues instead of behavior issues, we can begin to help our child — even if what the child believes may sound ridiculous to us. 

Fear has no logic. It has no boundaries of common sense. It doesn’t obey commands. It can only be diminished through felt safety — not by orders, sermons, or discussions. Once we understand this, we can help our children feel secure and begin the process of moving upstairs.

Want to know more? Listen to the podcast below.

*This article is excerpts from How to Have Peace When Your Kids are in Chaos for Adoptive/Foster Parents.

You can find the accompany course here.


Back to Basics Brain Development – Adoption/Foster Care Edition

For the month of March, we have been focusing on Back to Basics. This week on the podcast, Kristin Peters joins me (Kathleen) for a discussion about brain development as it applies to adoption. You can find the podcast here.

1. Kids that come home to us through adoption/foster care have altered brain chemistry caused by stress.

“We are all shaped by our genetic birthright and by the environment in which we live. To a developing fetus, the mother’s womb is an entire universe. If the mother has a healthful lifestyle, her uterus will share that with the growing child. But if the mom suffers from chronic stress, consumes such toxins such as alcohol and drugs, or doesn’t eat properly, the fetus is exposed to those dangers right along with the mother. An infant’s neurochemistry reflects his or her very first home-the uterus.”- The Connected Child

Neurons that fire together wire together. In plain English, the more a behavior is acted out or a trigger acted on, the more it becomes a pattern in the brain. It is as if the road is dug out, gravelled and paved by repeated experiences. The paved road then becomes the primary travel route.  

Adoption is messy. Children who are adopted from hard places have trouble verbalizing their feelings. They struggle with self-regulation and want to control everything and everyone around them. Trouble is, if we parents aren’t careful, we end up focusing on the behavior instead of digging deeper to the root of the problem. It’s quick and easy to think the child is misbehaving to get on our last nerve. We tend to think the child wants to make us angry.

The poor choices in behavior speaks what child is unable to state verbally.

Hurt children have a knack for making us adults feel out of control. They do know how to push our buttons. They seem to own a special button locating radar. Once they find the button, they push it mercilessly. And we adults, like puppets on a string flail around, flopping from hot to cold at their will. Rarely, if ever do these kids apologize. If they do, it is we parents have been steam rolled all day.

2.The attachment cycle has been broken.

Breaks in attachment cause a fear response. We need to work on felt safety.

“Chronic fear is like a schoolyard bully that scares children into behaving poorly.”- Dr. Karyn Purvis

We parents tend to expect our newly adopted children to enter the home and quickly develop a secure attachment style. We assume that they know the depth and width of time and work it took to secure their adoption.

“However, in the at-risk population, as much as 80% of children are classified as disorganized.”(Steele & Steele, Gray)

Once we come to terms with what sort of attachment our kiddos have and their level of fear, we can start moving in the right direction. It’s not enough for your child to be in a safe environment. He must feel safe. If he doesn’t feel safe, he will be in survival mode -flight, fight or freeze. Felt safety and secure attachment go hand in hand. When a child is securely attached to you, he will feel safe.

For instance, the other day at Joe and Throw (a local coffee place) I was holding my granddaughter Glenna on my lap. She was “watching” the Toy Story characters on my Apple watch. At the same time, she was slipping off my lap. She did nothing to secure herself or hang on. Because she felt safe, she trusted me to catch her and heave her back up which I did multiple times.

3.Your past affects your present parenting.

“We have also begun to understand how overwhelming experiences affect our innermost sensations and our relationship to our physical reality –the core of who we are. 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 the mind, brain and boy. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive the present.”- The Body Keeps Score

When I first got married, I naively thought that my past was wiped away as we similarly think that our adopted children’s past is wiped away. It’s not. We both carry our trauma into the relationship. The more aware we parents are of our triggers to our past trauma, the better we can navigate. It’s not easy. But, it is easier if your recognize them.

The more we do the work of healing for ourselves, the more we can help our kiddos. There seem to be a great many parents entering the foster/adoption world because they have had trauma – a troubled childhood, alcoholic parents, or fill in the blank. Our past can become their greatest gift and worst enemy -all in a minute. One moment the parenting is full of empathy, the next triggers send us into our past. Our past takes over and we are ashamed of our words and our actions.

The Road to Healing

To properly travel any route, we need a map. Even in this day and age of GPS via my phone, I like to see the trip before I travel. I’m one of those old school people who still print out a map. It helps me see where I’m going. If all this information is new to you or you don’t know which way to turn, start below. The video gives a great map of what may be going on with your kiddos. Below the video are some resources that can help you and your kiddos on the road to healing.

 

Resources:

Empowered to Connect

The Whole Brain Child

The Whole Brain Child Workbook

The Connected Child

Nurturing Adoptions: Creating Resilience after Neglect and Trauma

Capital Letter Syndromes and Adoption

Six Risk Factors

To get a copy of Five Things: A Tiny Handbook for Adoptive/Foster Families, click here and sign up to follow The Whole House via email.

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The Whole House Adoption/Foster Support Group, just send us a request!