What Might Help
Chances are that you’re already doing some things to try to help yourself feel better when times are hard. Most of us – kids included – have figured out how to use different kinds of tools for managing things in our lives. When feelings are really big, though, or our problems are really tough, it may be especially hard to find tools that work. This may be because the problem we’re facing, or the feeling we’re feeling, is too big for us to handle easily on our own; it may be because we haven’t yet learned the right skills or figured out what the right tool is; or it may be because the hard experiences in our lives set off the alarm bells in our brain, and get in the way of remembering that we know how to handle things safely – so instead of using a tool, we fight, or try to get away, or freeze and shut down.
Keep in mind that a tool that works for one kid may not work for another. Try to think about why this matters to you, what might work in your life, and who might be able to help you with it, like a therapist or an advocate, or with another kid who has had similar experiences and is doing well.
Being “safe” means having enough protection that – for the most part – there is no immediate danger around. When kids have had a lot of dangerous things happen in their life, they may become so used to danger and violence that they don’t believe that things can ever be safe, don’t know how to look for safe people, or they tolerate dangerous situations because they don’t know how else to live. Although there are many strategies that you may have used to manage danger (like being really tough, fighting back, or running away when things get scary), one of the most important goals you can have is to build a safe enough world for yourself that you don’t need to keep using those strategies – and instead, can focus on living your life in the way that you want. Getting help in this area can help you focus on a number of different ways you can increase your level of safety. For instance, treatment might be able to help you:
- Identify how to increase your safety in relationships
- Recognize unsafe situations and identify “exit” strategies
- Reach out for help if you are feeling unsafe
2. Regulation of your body, emotions, and behavior
“Regulation” means being able to safely and effectively manage your emotions, your energy level, and your behavior. It means knowing what you’re feeling and where it comes from, being able to tolerate what happens in your body, and being able to manage in safe ways all the different feelings you might have. When you have gone through a lot of stressful or traumatic things, intense emotions and energy in your body might have led you to act in ways that get you in trouble, because you’re so angry, so sad, so hyper, or so frozen that it’s hard to control what you do or say. And more than anything else…it feels lousy to feel lousy. No one wants to live in a body that feels frozen, hurt, sad, or angry all the time. Regulation means learning how to cope with your feelings in ways that are safe – that don’t put you at greater risk – and in ways that help you manage, tolerate, and understand what is happening inside of you. By bringing your emotions and energy under control and learning to cope with and tolerate them, you can take the time to learn how to better understand what is going on for you and make good choices, instead of having your feelings drive your actions. Treatment might help you:
- Identify ways that your feelings and behaviors might be getting in your way
- Identify what you are doing now to manage your emotions and the feelings in your body – this will give important clues about what your needs are (to feel safer? to feel more comfortable in your body?)
- Explore and identify tools or resources for managing your feelings
- Recognize the times when you need to use your tools to manage your feelings
- Be aware of, understand, and use the information your body and emotions are giving you – your feelings give you important information about your world.
3. Relational Engagement
This area is all about making connections – knowing how to connect to other people, whether kids your age, adults in your community, or people in your family. Even though we sometimes might want to fool ourselves into thinking we don’t, everyone needs people in their lives. When we have good, safe, healthy connections with others, we have people we can go to for support, people who care about and value us, people to have fun with, and people who have our back when times are hard and help you get your needs met in all sorts of ways. When kids have been hurt in relationships, especially relationships within their family, it can be hard to learn how to effectively manage relationships. You may be someone who finds connecting to other people kind of scary, or overwhelming, or feel like it just feels bad to be in relationship; if that’s who you are, you might have learned to keep your distance and not get close to anyone. Other kids feel so alone or lonely that they feel like they’ll do anything to get people to care about them – so they give in, do things they don’t really feel comfortable doing, go along with the crowd, or let themselves be hurt so that others will care about them. Some kids act in silly or mean ways to get attention from adults; others try their best not to get noticed. Some kids pretend to be someone they’re not or tell stories that aren’t true, just to fit in. Here are a few things that treatment might address:
- Explore and understand relationships, what they mean to you, and what you want, including what a “healthy” relationship would look like and feel like
- Work on skills to manage relationships – how to reach out to friends, how to start a conversation, how to negotiate conflict, and how to manage the distress that comes when relationships start to feel challenging
- Identify concrete ways to get connected to other people – for instance, identifying activities that you like, or people in your life you might work on building safe relationships with
4. Self-reflective information processing
This is all about being able to use the sophisticated thinking part of your brain (versus the “doing” or the “feeling” parts) to be aware of yourself, your wants, and your needs, and to be aware of the world around you, in order to understand situations and what might be happening. It also is about being able to then use all that information to make active choices and to solve problems. When you are able to self-reflect, you might use information about your feelings to guide your actions, but you also are able to use information about your goals, your values, your relationships, and the resources you have and challenges you face to come to the best decisions you can about what will be most helpful in any given moment. When kids experience a lot of danger, they learn to react first, and think later – in other words, our thinking brain learns to get out of the way. However – for us to really be powerful in our own lives, to make active choices and not just react to whatever life throws at us, we have to be able to put on the brakes (i.e., manage our feelings), evaluate situations, know ourselves and what we want, and know how to come up with solutions that might work. Treatment in this area is likely to focus on a few major things:
- Learn how to manage the quick reactions and strong feelings that might get in the way of making good decisions
- Learn about who you are, where you come from, and who you want to be, exploring your values, your opinions, and the hopes you have for your future
- Problem-solve by learning how to evaluate situations, define your goals, identify your choices, and work toward solutions
5. Positive affect / emotion enhancement
Treatment isn’t just about the hard stuff – it’s also about feeling good. When all is said and done, everyone deserves some joy in their life. This area is all about how to explore, engage in, and sustain activities and experiences that bring pleasure and joy to your life. Many of the kids we know who have experienced stress or trauma have spent their life warding off the bad – going to great lengths to try to tolerate and manage overwhelming experiences and feelings, and to survive the day-to-day. Not only is this exhausting, but it means all your good feelings get overshadowed by the bad. Creating opportunities to have good feelings – pride, and excitement, and curiosity, and fun – won’t erase the hard things that have happened in your life, but might, over time, give you a chance to balance the hard with the positive from this point on. Treatment can help you to:
- Look at what is getting in the way of having joyful experiences
- Explore the kinds of things that you are interested in and that bring you pleasure, and help you identify ways to get more of these things in your life
- Find places to engage in fun activities, learn how to negotiate these activities in ways that help you focus on the positives and not just the negatives, and help trouble-shoot the roadblocks getting in your way
6. Trauma experience integration
When life experiences are intense, to the point that they feel overwhelming or threatening, they shape how we respond to future experiences. The more these overwhelming experiences have repeated in your life, the more likely it is that they affect what you think and feel, and how you react, when things happen now. Trauma experience integration is about exploring and making meaning about the hard times you’ve been through in your life, so that they do not continue to pop into your head or body and guide your reactions in a way that is out of your control. Some memories, thoughts, or feelings can be so overwhelming that kids shut down or do unhealthy things to try to manage their distress. You might also sometimes feel like there are many different “you”’s – the “you” who is confident and who is able to manage things, for instance, and the “you” that suddenly feels shut down, overwhelmed, and alone. Treatment can help you:
- Explore your experiences at a pace that you are comfortable with, at the right time, and with someone you feel safe with
- Learn to manage the things that have happened to you by taking the time to think and talk about what you’ve been through
- Identify the things that frighten or upset you now
- Learn about why your reactions – even the ones that feel very confusing – probably make sense, even if they get in your way
- Identify the ways your experiences have affected you – and not just in the painful ways – Even the hardest times can lead to strengths in the kids who survive those times
Exploring your experiences, paying attention to your life story, and looking at the whole you – and not just the parts that feel bad, or hurt, or messed up – can help you build the strongest you that you can be.
Note: The content of this page was written by Dr. Margaret Blaustein for the Complex Trauma Treatment Network (CTTN)’s brochure and has been adapted for this website. For the full brochure “The Complex Trauma Youth Resource Guide,” please click here.