When many of us think of childhood, we imagine happy, carefree times. Tender feelings of safe, loving relationships with parents and grandparents are often remembered. Those of us who are parents ourselves know there is nothing more precious than the birth of a child and the dreams associated with watching that child grow and thrive into adulthood.
Adults also know that growing up can be painful. The wounds of childhood can persist throughout life, embodied in every muscle and organ of our bodies. Children experience trauma in similar ways as adults, including from abuse, poverty, war, injury, or other adverse events. But there is more to trauma than meets the eye.
There are subtle, often invisible, ways children suffer from trauma, the most common being the loss of human connection. Relational trauma can be experienced by children who feel misunderstood, inferior, unaccepted, emotionally neglected, or socially disconnected. These feelings damage children's emotional health.
Today, college freshmen rate their emotional health compared to others their age at 50.7%, the lowest level ever (Eagan, et al, 2014). Numerous studies have highlighted the declining emotional health of U.S. students, including a steady rise in anxiety, depression, and mental illness (Pryor, et al., 2010; Douce & Keeling, 2014). While these statistics are a cause for concern, the good news is that researchers are beginning to better understand the links between poor mental health, relational trauma, and the brain. As a result, therapies are improving.
In recent years, neuroscientists and psychologists have studied various types of trauma and its effects on children. We know, for example, that when children experience trauma, their growth and development is disrupted. To heal and move forward, research shows that the brain must be stimulated in fresh, creative ways. More than ever, a child needs support from adults who can authentically and respectfully interact with them.
In a groundbreaking new book, Relational and Body-Centered Practices for Healing Trauma: Lifting the Burdens of the Past, psychologist Sharon Stanley, PhD, demonstrates the importance of sharing traumatic experiences in the presence of those who can see, hear, and feel the many ways our bodies communicate truth. Written primarily for helping professionals, this book also reminds us of the significant role parents, teachers, and mentors play in helping children heal from adverse events or relational trauma. In fact, the neuroscience research and practices that Stanley shares should be at the heart of every healthy adult-child relationship. Gleaned from her book are three important ways all adults can become healers for the children in their lives.
Promote Embodied Awareness
Be willing to listen and respect the embodied and subjective experience that each child holds to be true. What does this mean? Neuroscience research shows that every traumatic experience is felt in the human body. When children become aware of their bodies, that awareness communicates important information to their brain. The brain, in turn, makes corrective changes and restores healthy functioning.
A simple shift in conversation can help children become more aware of their bodies. For example, instead of simply asking, “How do you feel?” you might ask, “How and where do you feel that (fear, anger, sadness) in your body?” When children become accustomed to connecting their feelings with bodily sensations, they achieve embodied awareness. “Aided by embodied awareness,” says Stanley, “we can look more closely, hear more accurately, and feel more actively in the moment, a mindfulness that can shift habitual autonomic fixed patterns from trauma.”
Create Meaningful Rituals
Throughout history, humans have recovered from trauma by coming together to honor struggle and the power of transformation. Unfortunately, ritual and ceremony have all but disappeared in many of today’s Western cultures. Based on years of research with indigenous peoples, Stanley points out the powerful brain-body connections that are made through ritual and how those connections are essential to healing trauma.
We can help children recover from painful events and hurtful relationships by working with them to create meaningful rituals. Again, body-based activities should be front and center, engaging the right hemisphere of the brain to connect to a child’s subjective way of knowing. Integration of the arts, music, contemplative practices, and dance, says Stanley, can transform the chaos of trauma into relational resources for growth.
The goal of rituals is to create human connections. When parents and teachers create safe spaces for children to express themselves, explore their feelings, and become aware of the sensations in their bodies, children feel what it means to be human. Stanley suggests that ceremony changes the brain in ways that convert fear to love, facilitating growth and development.
Connect through Somatic Empathy
Much has been written about the power of empathy. What Stanley does exceedingly well in her book is to differentiate what we often understand as “cognitive empathy,” an attempt to understand what others think, from “somatic empathy,” an ability to feel what others feel. The former is a left-brain activity; the latter is right-brained.
According to Stanley, “Somatic empathy communicates to people suffering from trauma that they are seen, felt, and understood just as they are, allowing them to feel felt.” Parents, teachers, and all caring adults have the ability to help children heal through our interactions with them and through our mindful attention to their body-based cues.
For example, when a child aches in his stomach, feels tension in her jaw, or experiences tight sensations in his chest, we can help that child more consciously connect these sensations to a deeper self-knowing. We do this through authentic listening and a sense of respect for how a child feels and experiences those feelings in his or her body. We are consciously present, helping children reflect and gain embodied self-awareness.
Through compassionate relationships based in somatic empathy, a child’s brain changes in ways that repair the effects of trauma.
The three practices listed above are everyday ways all adults can nurture deep connections with children and teenagers and help them heal from trauma. But often, children need the help of experienced psychological professionals to overcome adverse events and relational trauma in their lives. The good news is that neurobiological research with somatic, embodied healing practices is breaking new ground each year.
Stanley has trained hundreds of practitioners for over a decade in what she calls “somatic transformation.” For helping professionals who want to understand the neurobiological underpinnings of trauma and new ways to work with those affected by trauma, I highly recommend Stanley’s book, based on the most recent research and transformative practices available.
As parents and teachers, we must all become more aware of the subtle cues of relational trauma in our children and in ourselves. Through numerous case studies, Stanley demonstrates that it is never too late to heal the wounds of our own childhoods through body-based somatic healing. When we heal ourselves, we have greater capacity to be in authentic empathy-based relationships with our children.
Douce, L.A, & Keeling, R.P. (2014) A strategic primer on college student mental health. (Washington DC: American Council on Education).
K. Eagan, et al., (2014) The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014 (Los Angeles: CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2014)
J.H. Pryor, et al., (2010) The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010 (Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2010).
S. Stanley, (2016) Relational and Body-Centered Practices for Healing Trauma: Lifting the Burdens of the Past (New York: Routledge).
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.
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©2016 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.