The Key to Supporting Victims of Childhood Trauma: Safe and Supportive Relationships

Arms and legs shackled, the teenage boy paces back and forth in a courtroom’s holding area as he awaits his hearing. This is “Tim’s” third juvenile hall visit. The charge: punching a security guard who approached him from behind, startling him into an immediate reaction.

Anxious, he begins to panic, his eyes darting around the room as he tries to suppress his impulse to rush to the door, regardless of the consequences. Though Tim doesn’t realize it, the physical restraints are subconscious reminders of the torture he endured as a young child, when he was routinely tied down and physically abused.

When his public defender notices Tim’s anxious expression, he tries to calm him. Pacing beside the youth, the defender makes small-talk about football, one of Tim’s favorite subjects, and the teen begins to relax.

Preparing Tim to meet the judge, the defender speaks gently. “When we walk into the court room, you will see all those men wearing uniforms and guns,” he reminds the youth. “They are my friends, okay? I told them you’re coming in today they are here to protect you and me.”

When the door finally opens and an officer smiles in Tim’s direction, the teenager waves, his body at ease. No longer fighting the shackles, he takes a seat by his trusted friend, waiting to hear what the judge will say this time.

Tim’s moment of transformation illustrates a powerful message that is critical to all systems of care and child welfare: relationships heal. Even in the most serious cases, in which trauma has altered children’s brains, relational safety can help individuals recover. As Dr. Stephen Porges explains, the best way we can help victims of childhood trauma to heal is to provide them with consistent cues of relational safety in all aspects of their life. Unfortunately, relational safety remains an unfamiliar concept in our outdated systems of care. Too many training and education paradigms—as well as juvenile justice systems—rely instead on behavioral strategies, which focus on punishing bad behavior. These outmoded and simplistic approaches were developed on animal models, and they fail to account for the complexity of the traumatized human brain, body, and soul.

Science has demonstrated that compassionate care can change the brain’s architecture for the better. But professional and policymakers need to bring practices up to date, reflecting the rich data supporting trauma-informed care. Here are a few places to start:

* Stop labeling behaviors “maladaptive” or “aggressive” when they are survival strategies that helped the individual survive abuse or neglect. Punishing a child for unintentional behavior doesn’t help to heal the trauma or prevent the behavior from recurring. Remember that at some point, “maladaptive” behavior was actually adaptive, the child’s subconscious survival mechanism, as was Tim’s automatic “fight or flight” reaction when he was unexpectedly startled.

* Don’t inhibit physical movement for those with trauma histories. Movement helps people to process emotions through their bodies. Walk alongside a child or play or talk with the child. Punishing a child by taking away recess or free time doesn’t work. Movement is an adaptive strategy that helps a traumatized person to recover. This includes eliminating the use of seclusion or restraints, which only serve to increase the individual’s neuroception of threat, and can cause re-traumatization.

* For foster children, expand the focus from custodial care to include relational care, by emphasizing warmly engaged relationships as a front-line treatment. As Dr. Porges says, “treatment is safety and safety is treatment.” Adaptive social engagement emerges from relational safety.

*Work to support national standards regarding social and emotional development for all providers in our child welfare systems. Custodial care is insufficient without intentional and focused emotional care customized to the unique needs of each child. I explain a basic framework of emotional care suitable for all childhood providers in my book.

*Work to retain staff in foster care, schools, mental health facilities, and residential centers. These institutions’ high turnover rates reflect leaders’ failure to understand that relationships are key to the compassionate healing of traumatized individuals.

Finally, let me add a note of thanks to Tim’s public defender. Through his own nature and devotion to children, he “got it.” I’m forever grateful to him and to all of those in our social welfare and justice systems who understand that the road to healing is through truly connecting, one human being to another.