Trauma Resiliency in Children and Adolescents

Trauma Resiliency Model (or TRM) therapy is designed to teach wellness skills to children and adults experiencing traumatic stress reactions using a mind-body approach.  Over the past several weeks, we reviewed two major elements of TRM. Post one was focused on defining resilience and outlining four quick tools to utilize in the aftermath of traumatic experiences, which ultimately promote resilience. Post two was dedicated to the body’s role in holding onto trauma as well as its capacity to overcome it! As a reminder, TRM can function as both a model for trauma reprocessing treatment as well as self-care.  The TRM skills can offer useful tools to maximize movement forward through the current pandemic.  Now, this week’s blog post will focus on fostering resilience in children and teens during challenging times.  

Trauma resiliency in children and adolescents 

Trauma can alter the way a child or adolescent sees the world, making it suddenly seem like a more dangerous and frightening place.  Traumatized children may find it more difficult to trust both their environment and other people.  In my experience, the TRM model offers a lot of insight and skills for caregivers on this topic. Parents can help by rebuilding their child’s sense of safety and security. Encouraging the child to pursue healthy activities allows them time for rest, play, and fun.  Establishing a predictable structure and schedule for a child’s life, as well as maintaining routines, helps make the world feel stable.  

In addition to that, parents can maintain regular times for homework and family activities.  They can speak of the future and make plans that are predictable.  Being consistent and following through on what is said works to rebuild a child’s trust by being trustworthy.  Caregivers can limit their child’s media exposure that could cause them to fear for their own safety, even if the traumatic event occurred far away.  Using faith-based procedures to memorialize and grieve  help children find meaning.  

A crisis or troubling event can cause traumatic stress and undermine a child’s sense of security, leaving them feeling helpless and vulnerable.  Whether the child or teen lived through a disturbing event, witnessed it, or experienced traumatic stress in the aftermath, they may experience a traumatic reaction.  Before we consider how some children and families survive and thrive in spite of these adversities, it is useful to consider some of the major research findings on the topic. These findings can inform ongoing efforts to bolster resilience in high-risk groups like minors.

Children may be resilient in one domain in their lives but not in others (e.g., academic, social, self-regulatory behaviors). For example, children who appear resilient in social competence may have difficulties in self-regulatory behaviors, and this can even flip-flop based on the situation or crowd. As Zimmerman and Arunkumar (1994) observe: “Resilience is not a universal construct that applies to all life domains. Children may be resilient to specific risk factors, but quite vulnerable to others. Resilience is a multidimensional phenomenon that is context-specific and involves developmental change.” 

The factors that contribute to resilience may vary depending upon the nature of the adverse situation. For example, children who have been exposed to sexual abuse often have an external attribution style (i.e., blaming others or circumstances) that operates as a protective factor, but this style does not often show up within individuals who suffered physical abuse or neglect. As I mentioned in my first blog post, resilience refers to the ability to identify and use strengths, both external and internal, to live fully in the present moment. Thus, sustainable resilience does not come from defense mechanisms (e.g., blaming). Let’s talk about sustainable resilience below.

Sustainable resilience within the resilient child

“The resilient child is one who works well, plays well, loves well and expects well” (Bernard, 1995). There are several factors that exemplify the resilient child, which can be found in the bold font below. I believe the more skills a child learns that result in these factors, the higher the likelihood that child develops sustainable resilience. These skills are in the plain font following the bold font:  

  1. The nature of their behavior or their temperament features – an easy going disposition that is not easily upset, good self regulation of emotional arousal and impulses, and attentional controls all lead to calmer temperament. 
  1. Problem-solving skills – abstract thinking, reflectivity, flexibility, and trying alternatives indicate adaptability to stress.  
  1. Social competence – emotional responsiveness, empathy, caring, communication skills, humor (including being able to laugh at oneself) and other behaviors increase the ability to get along with others. 
  1. Autonomy – self-awareness, identity, independence, self-worth, and mastery help children feel they can set goals and pursue them.
  1. A sense of purpose and a future orientation – healthy expectations, goal-directedness, future-orientation planning, goal-attaining skills, success orientation, achievement motivation, educational aspirations, and persistence give purpose; religious beliefs that are supported by significant others convey a sense of meaning in life (i.e., spirituality).

To summarize, resilience can be learned by training and strengthening these areas of temperament, social competency, problem solving skills, social competence, and autonomy, while also creating purpose and holding a future orientation in life. Most of my clients ask a follow-up question at this point: how do I do that practically? This is a simple, but not easy, task.  Having a friend and being a friend, taking charge of one’s own behavior, setting new goals and making a plan to reach them, believing in oneself, and focusing on appreciating elements in one’s life are all great places to start.

Maybe the most important part of developing resilience for children is forming a sustainable bonded relationship with a competent and caring adult caregiver.  The child’s perception of a parent’s availability and responsiveness creates a strong support system.  To be a competent, caring caregiver, parents can offer lots of warmth and support, but they can also provide structure and clear boundaries. Monitoring children’s behavior, offering peer contacts, setting expectations, developing responsibilities, and maintaining an organized home environment is paramount, too. This will create a secure emotional base whereby the child feels a sense of belonging and safety.  

In addition, develop a core set of beliefs that nothing can shake, try to find meaning in whatever trauma has happened, work to maintain a positive outlook, take cues from someone who is especially resilient, face things that scare you, be quick to reach out for support when things go haywire and life is hard, learn new things as often as you can, do not dwell on the past, and recognize what makes you uniquely strong and own it. 

As we wrap up the TRM series, we hope parents can use these tips to help rebuild their child’s sense of safety and move from trauma into healing and recovery!  Identifying traumatic stress within your child can vary by age groups, see the references listed at the end of this blog for resources to learn more. 

References

Meichenbaum, Donald. (2020). Understanding Resilience in Children and Adults: Implications for Prevention and Intervention. https://melissainstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Resilienceinchildren.pdf 

Bernard, B. (1995). Fostering resiliency in kids: Protective factors in the family, school and community. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.

Zimmerman, M. A., & Arunkumar, R. (1994). Resiliency research: Implications for schools and policy. Social Policy Report of the SRCD, 8, 1-17.

Charney & Southwick, (2012). Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. Cambridge University Press.

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