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“All behaviour (truly) is communication”

As an educator, you’ve probably heard this phrase a million times before, but how does that overlap with trauma?

 Below are 4 examples which exemplify different Types of Trauma. Do you recognise them? What can you do to support these pupils?

Teacher’s viewpoint. Zoe, 14 years old, living with her parents, in a middle class home and a white picket fence – or so it seems.  She is pretty, well liked and a good student.  Recently, Zoe seems to be hanging out with a new group of girls.  Not her usual group and she starts skipping your class.  You ask her what is going on and she tells you (in front of her new pals and avoiding eye contact): “nothing miss, you are just BORING!” and skips off but not before you notice a slight glaze in her eyes and you wonder, hmmm, is she high, or what is that all about?

Zoe’s story. “I cannot sleep well at night as dreams come to me. I cannot tell anybody what happened to me because I am such an idiot and mum and dad will be mad at me because they have told me a million times not to do THAT. He was so cute and I felt special when he asked me to walk with him in the park.  I could not stop him from kissing and touching me.  My skirt was too short.  I am not even sure if I was raped, but it sure feels like it.  It is my fault. My other friends don’t understand me. So what if I smoke weed to get to sleep?”

Zoe’s Trauma. Zoe is struggling with probable PTSD and feelings of shame, guilt and isolation.  Her usual support system feels unavailable to her due to the feelings of shame and guilt.  She needs intervention immediately and help with reconnecting with her previously existing support systems which are probably still available to her but she may need a bridge.  Also, she can learn healthier ways to manage her anxiety as she appears to be self-soothing through use of drugs.

This is an example of ACUTE TRAUMA: a single event, like an assault or watching a car crash in front of your eyes.

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Teacher’s viewpoint. Sam, 16 years old, lives with his mum, dad and younger sister.  As his teacher, you have never seen his dad but you always contact his mum when he has pastoral detentions or exclusions.  Other kids consider him a bully and it is just a matter of time, in your opinion, that he will either end up in custody or get thrown out of school.

Sam’s story.  “My mum and sister are my world. Last night I heard my mum and dad get into it and I swear if he hits her again, I am going to beat the living  S— out of him! I hate my dad. He tells me I am a piece of S— but he is the one who is really is a nasty C—and one day I will get big enough to kick him out and me and my sister and mum will live in peace.”

Sam’s trauma. Sam exhibits violence towards more vulnerable students because he has internalised this behavior through his repeated and consistent experience of witnessing violence from his dad.  He may not respond readily to male mentors as he has not had an experience of a good male role model and he is very defensive.  He runs the risk of becoming a perpetrator of domestic violence as he has not only internalised his father, but he appears to have idealised his mother and sister and may position himself as a “protector” of them.  Interventions he is most likely to respond to include long-term community programmes and after-school mentoring where he truly begins to internalise and challenge the entrenched violent male role model he has lived with to date.

This is an example of CHRONIC TRAUMA: repeated, long term, like people who are living in war torn areas, bullying and domestic violence.  

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Teacher’s viewpoint. Ellie, 11 years old, has very few friends and looks dirty and unkempt.  She is very thin and exhibits poor attention span.  She is very quiet and seems like she has a learning disability, but the school has never gotten to the bottom of it. She lives at home with her single mum and is the eldest of 6 siblings. She talks to no one. You are worried about her and have approached her, but she is evasive.

Ellie’s story. “I am hungry.  How can I concentrate on this Maths when I just need to know when I can get out of here because I saw some kids put their lunch boxes in that corner and when no one is watching, I am going to grab those crisps and biscuits.  Kids make fun of me and I know I stink.  Mum tells me I am a ‘loser’ and ‘stupid’ and she is right.  What is the point of school, anyway?  How can I learn when all I can do is hear my tummy growl and my arm aches where mum yanked me out of bed this morning because I was refusing to come in.  I am in pain but I am not going to say anything because I hate social workers and I will just get sent away. Plus no one cares because I am a loser.”

Ellie’s trauma.  Ellie is physically and emotionally neglected and abused.  She lives in poverty and her mother is likely to have been a victim of abuse and neglect in her own childhood.  Her mum’s poor parenting skills are aggravated by their poverty, lack of meaningful support and Ellie’s new adolescent sense of autonomy.  Ellie’s self-esteem is extremely low as she has internalised all the hurtful messages given to her at home, which are amplified by her peers who mock her.  Interventions she might respond to include building a one-to-one relationship with a staff person who, over time, might build trust.  Also, pairing Ellie up with a peer who is kind and compassionate might help Ellie build bridges with other peers. Offering group or individual support to mum could help. Finally, any social work involvement needs to be done very carefully and only if there is very solid, documented and long-term evidence of neglect/abuse; if not Ellie might suffer more at home

This is an example of COMPLEX TRAUMA: multiple, prolonged, over time like experiencing abuse and/or neglect at a young age.

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Teacher’s viewpoint. Tyree, 15 years old, looks angry all the time, has a few friends who seem really tight with him, is often truant and does not attend class but girls love him and his attitude.  He lives at home with his mum, younger brother and older sister.  You have tried to talk to him but he just shuts off. Once you saw him crying and you approached him and he told you to “F—- off and how could you understand anyway…you are just a white guy.”

Tyree’s story.  “I am black and I never met my dad.  My mum is white.  I heard that my dad used to beat up my mum and that is why I never met him.  I do not know what it is like to be a positive black male because every time I think of my dad I think I hate him and he is a piece of S—for beating up mum.  Everyone around me is white, except my best mate.  I was crying the other day because my other mates just told me that the girl I like only dates “black guys” so does that mean if she likes me, it is only because I am black? Is that all that I am? Why are all the messages I get about being black, bad or limiting?  Nothing in the media or at home makes me feel good about that side in me.”

Tyree’s Trauma. Tyree is not only suffering from a lack of immediate positive role models which he is seeking as an adolescent, but he struggles with society’s definitions about what it is to be a black male. When his friends said the girl he likes only likes “black” boys, it reduces his whole self to a skin colour in a way that other people are not similarly stereotyped. It is not only reductive, but it chips away at his self-esteem and reinforces his already poor sense of self and identity. Tyree carries a trauma which has been societally supported and reinforced and so when daily events trigger him, he has a larger response than perhaps a white boy who has not grown up with all these negative images of his ethnic and cultural identity. Interventions for 

Tyree include both individual and group supports in the community and out of school which promote positive male and black male role models. 

This is an example of   HISTORICAL/TRANSGERATIONAL TRAUMA: the most recently recognized type of trauma.  It is the trauma that cultural or ethnic groups can carry and passed on from generation to generation, like racism or holocaust survivors.

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So what are some of the therapeutic strategies that educators can use to approach the traumatised young person? 

With the spirit of genuine curiosity and non-judgment, try to unpick what underlies the troublesome, “bad” behaviours. Your role can shift from being an enforcer of rules to an empathic detective and translator:

  • Do not take insults personally.  If I had a pound for every insult that was thrown at me over the past 20 years, I would be an exceptionally wealthy woman!  If a student calls you the C word.  Translation: “Do I remind him of his mum who is not emotionally present and so when I am nice to him, he does not trust it?”
  • Be playful, but not “jokey.”  Playfulness is a magnificent tool as it is gentle, mutual and light.  It is very different from humour, which is so often mistinterpreted (especially when the student is hypervigilant).  
  • Be authentic and true to yourself. Students who are traumatised are hypervigilant and will be extremely attuned to you and your genuineness.  Do not pretend to be funny, if you are not.
  • Self-awareness is key to the success of your interaction with the student. If a student repels you, explore why? Similarly, what student draws you in?  Both will inform you about yourself and you probably need to build distance between you and the one you “like” and build bridges between you and the one you “dislike.”
  • Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.  Whatever you choose to share about yourself, be mindful that the student will have a different life experience and assign a different meaning to your story than you own.

Finally, remember that early trauma lodges itself in our bodies and minds and we may be unaware of it.  In today’s world of COVID-19 anxiety and lockdowns, increasing climate change uncertainty, widespread realization of the pervasiveness of exclusion and inequality, and the fight for human rights , those of us who may have carried trauma from before, will be re-triggered and its impact on us will be more tenacious than for someone who has not.

As a thank you to Frederique for her post, a donation has been made to the charity of her choice: Cambodian Children’s Fund

Frederique Lambrakis-Haddad has had over 20 years of clinical experience working with significant emotional issues and has provided therapy, support and training to both staff and clients. She has worked extensively in organisational settings and has been a senior manager for 10 years, so she recognises pragmatic stressors senior leaders are often put under, whilst trying to provide the best for their clients and staff. 

Frederique is the lead consultant at Traumainform.com

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