Trauma Informed and the Power of Words

Parent Yelling

The idea that our words have the power to wound might be as old as time itself. In the Bible it is said, “For in many things we offend in word…”. Many of us grew up with the sayings, ‘Loose lips sink ships’, and ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’. Words have the power to wound us deeply. Think about your own experience. Which one cuts deeper, the helpful word or the hurtful one?

There is new information that supports this time-honored concept. Research involving MRI technology shows that the brains of children who are verbally mistreated will, over time, develop in an atypical way. Prolonged exposure to verbal abuse, or any other kind of trauma, effects the development of the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system is responsible for, among many other things, self-regulation, memory, reason, cause and effect, organization, and language development.

Teachers be warned. There are children in your classroom who have brains deeply wounded by words. As many as one in four children in most suburban schools and more the three in four children in poverty stricken areas have been impacted by trauma. The good news is that our words also have the power to heal. Recent studies have shown that the old saying, ‘You get more flies with honey’ is also true.

Got Pateince

When you speak to your students with patience and empathy, you build trust. When “What’s wrong with you??” becomes “What has happened to you?” you develop understanding. Eventually “Get out!” becomes, “How can we work together to prevent this from happening again?” When this happens, a door opens and you have an opportunity to build resilience. When you build resilience, youbegin to heal the parts of the brain wounded by words. Resilience leads to academic and behavioral success for all children.

At the end of the day, it all goes back to another time-honored concept, “Speak to others as you would have them speak to you.” I don’t know about you, but when I am hurting, I prefer empathy and patience from my family and friends. Not judgment, disgust, or detention. If you can remember that, consider yourself trauma informed. It’s just that easy.

Patience and Wisdom

The Attachment Yardstick

Notched yardstick

Typically, our children’s lives are measured by events such as birthdays, grades in school, graduation, etc. Recently, however, it occurred to me that there are other events by which I measure my son’s growth. Oh sure, I’m proud of him when he does well in sports, gets a good grade in school, or finds (and keeps) a job, but those things do not make it on the internal yardstick I keep as his mother to measure his growth.

I have been blessed with a bio son and a son who was brought home from a Bulgarian Orphanage when he was three years old. The yardstick for my bio son is notched by birthdays. On his birthday, I am reminded of our deep bond and how much he has grown since the day we met face to face. My Bulgarian son’s birthdays are not markers of our deep bond because we did not meet on his birthday. Although I will always remember the day and date of the moment I first laid eyes on him, it’s not a day that marks his growth for me. I recently discovered that notches in his yardstick are marked by his achievements in attachment.

We were sitting on the therapists couch the other day discussing my frustration with my son’s refusal to set an alarm to wake himself up for school. (We spend a lot of time on that couch discussing my frustrations…) He had me in a bind and he knew it. If I don’t wake him up, the natural consequences for him are that he does not go to school. Then he does not graduate. Then he does not go to college or become a fully employed member of adult society…..and so on. Basically, if he does not get to school, he lives on my couch until I throw him out. Not a future I hope to see. Somehow either I have communicated to him that his education is my job, or he has deftly manipulated the situation so that I have come to believe it is my job. I want him to develop the responsibility for him getting himself up and he wants me to remain responsible for this task. Stalemate.

Then it hits me.   (Not Devine intervention, but excellent therapy. There is no mountain too high to climb for a true and talented attachment therapist.) He wants me to wake him up in the morning because he needs me to connect with him. He needs me!!! When it was suggested to my son that maybe he needs that connection before he goes off to school, he was able to acknowledge that was the case! Not only was I able to see that he needed me to mother him in this way, but HE was able to see it and be okay with it!!!


So this month when we are all sending our kids back to school, another notch will be added to my yardstick. It won’t be his starting his junior year in high school, it will be forever remembered as the year he allowed himself to need me. As for the stalemate, a compromise was reached. He wakes himself up and I get up after he has showered and dressed and chat with him for a while before his bus comes to take him to school. One more notch on the attachment yardstick.

**For a list of attachment therapists, go to

School Safety – Are we missing the point???

With school violence and school shootings on theScreen Shot 2015-06-04 at 11.18.36 AM rise, it’s not surprising that parents, teachers, and administrators are preoccupied with school safety. Politicians have passed state and federal laws guiding schools on prescribed treatment for children who bully and children who engage in acts of violence. Administrators are required to demonstrate zero tolerance for weapons, substance abuse, and acts of vandalism and violence. I agree that we need to keep guns out of our schools. I agree that we need to keep our children safe. Children who are not safe cannot learn.

Schools have been highly responsive to this call to action. Most schools have detailed emergency response procedures to keep children safe from external threats to school safety. Most schools have extensive discipline policies and procedures outlining action taken against internal threats to school safety.

And yet, school violence has escalated. There were school rules at Sandy Hook elementary school. Did those rules keep those children safe? There was a perfectly acceptable discipline policy in place at Columbine High School in Colorado. And yet, teachers, administrators, and children died. So we passed laws to apply more punishment. And still the violence continues.

School shootings are an extreme and, thankfully, a statistically rare act of school violence. However, more common and less severe acts of violence, aggression, vandalism, and substance abuse occur in schools across the country on a daily basis. The presence of these acts in the classrooms is emotionally disturbing and academically disrupting to all present.

School leaders are missing the point. They are working very hard but they are focusing on the wrong target. In order to prevent a problem, we need to first understand it.

In 2010 the Center for Disease Control released the results of a study on the widespread extent of adverse childhood experiences. The ACES study found that almost 50% of the participants had been exposed to at least one type if adverse experience. Adverse childhood experiences include; physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, missing parents as a result of incarceration, death, divorce, placement in foster care, or adoption. It has been estimated that one in four children in every classroom has been exposed to childhood trauma.

Chronic or prolonged exposure to maltreatment impacts brain development. When young children are abused or witness violence, their brains are subjected to a dangerously high level of stress hormones. Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline trigger the brain to respond quickly to help us run from a burning building or walk a mile with a broken leg to get help. In large or sustained doses, however, they can be damaging. Very young children respond to their environment predominantly through engagement of their amygdala or survival lobe of the brain. Over time, through repeated engagement with caregivers who respond to their needs consistently and keep them from harm, their brains develop pathways through the hippocampus or emotional regulator of the brain and begin to interact with the prefrontal cortex or thinking brain.

Prolonged exposure to complex trauma causes overexposure to stress hormones, which block or interfere with growth of the neural pathways from the amygdala through the hippocampus to the pre-frontal cortex. Thus, children with complex trauma exposure are stuck in survival mode. In many cases the people who are supposed to keep them safe have harmed them. They have not learned to trust or to regulate their own emotions. They are as different from children with no complex trauma exposure as lions are to ducks.

School administrators who compile a list of their repeat offenders are likely to find that as many as 90% of them have been exposed to at least one adverse childhood experience. Lions are most often the repeat offenders of acting out behaviors, bullying, and substance abuse. And yet, we continue to apply a response that was designed for ducks.

In a typical school, teachers are taught to reward good behavior and ignore or punish bad behavior. They are taught to apply a blend of cognitive/behavioral learning theory – The cognitive theory is in action when teachers participate in problem solving dialog with children. They encourage the child to take responsibility for their actions by explaining what they did. They learn from their mistakes by exploring the reasons for their behavior and agreeing on an appropriate consequence. For the most part, this is an excellent strategy for children who have developed from the survival brain into the rational and reasoning frontal cortex.

While this approach to inappropriate choices teaches young ducks to engage in a metacognitive approach to future self-regulation, it is not effective with lions. Lions in most cases do not know why they are angry, scared, or withdrawn. They do not have access to their internal voice. Their behavior is instinctual and not based in conscious thought.

In addition to the cognitive approach, most teachers and schools employ the traditional method of reward and punishment – The behavioral theory in action. In fact, it seems that the more severe the behavior, the more swiftly an administrator or teacher moves from cognitive strategies to behavioral strategies. The problem with strict reward and punishment is that while it might have been effective to move lower brained mice through mazes, it does not translate cleanly to animals with higher order brains. An argument can be made that reward and punishment is only a temporary fix. Punishing children may stop the unwanted behavior temporarily, but it does not teach appropriate behavior and eventually, you create a child who hits to solve problems. Rewards might encourage the desired behavior initially, but unless you move from the sticker chart to skills in self-regulation, the improvement is short-lived.

Now lets think about our little lions. Any type of punishing, yelling, incarceration (detention or time out) can be a trigger for a survival response. They are already on high alert for threats to their safety. Most of their actions are instinctive. Any type of discipline is a threat to their safety. When a student is triggered into survival mode by a trauma reminder, the ‘learning brain’ largely goes offline.  In this state, a child is neurobiologically unable to learn. The child’s behavior is a normal response to toxic stress; it is not “willful” or intentionally directed. Children with trauma exposure are not ready for cognitive behavioral strategies.

The good news is that young brains are fairly flexible. When toxic stress levels are reduced and threats to safety are diminished, the development of neural pathways through the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex is resumed. With proper care and feeding, unlike real lions, traumatized children can learn to live in the pond with ducks.

Before schools can be physically safe places, they need to be emotionally safe places. Teachers and administrators need to understand the impact of trauma on children. They need to develop policies and procedures that take into account the neurological state of their most frequent offenders. Only when we understand why children are acting out are we prepared to develop an appropriate response. Let’s recognize the target and stop missing the point.