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New, Improved Strategies
to Help Traumatized Students
You may not have heard about it, but the way counselors and mental health professionals work with the victims of traumatic events, and those affected by acts of horror, has begun to evolve, change and improve over the past decade.
Most of the changes are driven by our expanded understanding of how the brain functions, with mental health experts like Dr. Daniel Siegel, Dr. Daniel Amen, and Dr. Peter Levine in the forefront of much of the research and study. We now know the brain is far more malleable than previously believed, and that some of the accepted priorities of trauma healing with children and teens may no longer be the best practices.
Here is a list of some of the most dramatic and important changes to our understanding of how to help traumatized children and teens who are coping with trauma, fear, anxiety, depression, sadness, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following a mass shooting or other horrific event.
This how-to article focuses on helping traumatized students in grades K-12, and is written by Author/Workshop Presenter Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. This article is especially geared for mental health, social work, psychology and student assistance professionals. Teachers, principals and other educators should consult directly with a local mental health specialist when working with traumatized students.
1. Process Counseling is No Longer Key
It has been a truism in mental health: to help people overcome trauma, they must talk about it– or write about it, or in some way process what they went through. New brain research suggests that goal may actually be harmful, that process work should instead be limited because repeatedly focusing on the trauma may "cement it into the brain"– not help "release it" as previously believed.
2. Helping the Body/Central Nervous System is Now Key
When children focus on a past traumatic event, new research suggests that they recapitulate the original trauma, meaning that their nervous system goes into overdrive.
You don't need to see the research to see this phenomenon. Watch as a child focuses on the past trauma and you can see symptoms of sympathetic nervous system activation. Signs to watch for include increased anxiety, fear, sadness, and so on, as evidenced by reactions such as tears, pressured speech, quickened respiration, or heightened agitation. To help children recover from trauma, the goal must be to help the sympathetic nervous system relax from the activated state.
3. Reconsider the Value of Extensive Process Work
Even though processing the trauma has been a central goal to trauma recovery, have you ever actually thought about "what is the actual benefit of the talk?" Certainly, when children have a burning need to tell someone of their experience, that is always valid, but beyond that, what really is accomplished by returning to focus on the traumatic event?
Once you can identify exactly what is achieved via process work, take a look at how that accomplishment stacks up against the reality that the continuing backward focus activates the sympathetic nervous system and all the symptoms that come with it. Maybe talk isn't as valuable or necessary as once believed.
4. The Negative Consequences of Negative Thoughts
Even though mental health counselors have believed that it's generally necessary to process negative thoughts and memories, a new perspective is evolving. Since a focus on negative thoughts activates the sympathetic nervous system, perhaps focusing on negative past events should no longer be a goal– perhaps it should even be considered a relapse. Perhaps the goal should be to help children steer their minds away from the painful past and towards the safety of the present.
5. The New Goal of Trauma Counseling for Children and Teens
Perhaps the new goal for those who help children and adolescents recover from experiences like the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, is to restore the brain, body and nervous system to its original state as much as possible.
Some leading researchers now believe that the brain views the world through a kind of lens that can be molded and changed through strategies like repetition, body and mind relaxation techniques, exercise, and re-orientation to the present. With this in mind, strategies like these must begin to take a more central role in facilitating recovery. By switching to methods like these, counselors, pastors, social workers, school psychologists and other mental health workers can perhaps best help children find safety in the present while leaving behind the terror of the past.
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