Trauma Sharing Between Students and Educators

Today’s guest author is Sidney McGillicky MSW, RSW

Sidney is an Approved EMDR Consultant and also a Certified EMDR therapist who specializes in the treatment of complex and developmental trauma with 20 yrs experience working as a therapist. Sidney also is a Certified NMT(c) Level One Practitioner utilizing advanced knowledge and understanding of neurological development resulting from adverse and traumatic experiences throughout the lifespan. Sidney is client-centered and integrative with an understanding of the consequences of trauma and developing interventions that focus on healing and recovery. 

The nature of trauma causes considerable reactions in those who are directly experiencing it and those who are witness to its impact on children. The experience of those who are impacted by trauma is much different from those who are witnesses; however, there are more similarities than we think. Children are impacted more acutely as their brain development becomes impacted, affecting the stress response that programs the survival areas to be “on” most or all the time. Imagine being pulled over by the police suddenly and how we have emotional and physical panic responses. However, this experience is often temporary but creates acute panic responses that subside relatively quickly. Now imagine that a child is living with this similar pattern in their nervous system, and they have NO CHOICE but to live this way. This is what life is like for children living with the consequences of acute or pervasive trauma. Then to add injury to insult, we design academic programs that demand children’s brains to be in a thinking state.

The problem with this is that the brain of a child living with trauma is in a state of survival, and the thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is not essential to survival. The resulting behavioral issues and power struggles with education staff create a negative feedback loop for that child.

This is not just limited to the child with negative feedback looping as staff and parents then begin to be impacted. The impact depends a lot on the history of experiences adults have themselves as children and the nature of the relationship with the child. Educational staff often are not adequately educated or informed about how trauma IMPACTS brain development and functioning of children. Their trauma intelligence is lacking, and that does not allow them to develop the skills to co-regulate a child or adopt intervention strategies. As time passes, the adult then easily transfers their own frustration, sense of confusion, and helplessness onto the child, with countertransference occurring due to continued or increased behavioral reactivity from the child and hence completing a negative feedback loop. Without meaningful intervention, the educator then absorbs the countertransference and, over time, begins to experience burnout that evolves into compassion fatigue and a potential increase in mental health symptoms. This is one way that the educator shares the trauma the student is living with, but what about the parents of the child?

Those parents and caregivers of children living with trauma create a unique sharing of the trauma. This is certainly the case when the trauma occurs outside of the home. In these situations, parents and caregivers feel not only helpless but intense sadness, confusion, anger, and often may feel a sense of failing to protect their child. These reactions are not that uncommon and create a unique sharing of the trauma because they can experience similar responses that their child is feeling. When parents are closely attached to their children, this increases the attunement between them, and the mirror neurons in our brains become sensitized to the state of their child. So, the trauma is then shared between the child and parent, creating yet another negative feedback loop. Parents also can experience a unique form of traumatic grief in the loss of how their child was as opposed to how their child is now. These are just a brief sample of factors occurring with parents in their sharing of their child’s trauma, as I have just described.

This is just the tip of the trauma iceberg, as there are more layers to the trauma sharing that are complex and interwoven in our schools, communities, and homes. However, trauma is not irreversible, and healing is not only possible but expected with the right conditions and appropriate services. Educators require support and training within formal university programs and increase trauma intelligence programs in school divisions. Families need the appropriate trauma-informed therapies with trained clinicians.

 There has never been a time in our history than now where we know more about the impact of trauma on developing brains, thanks to neuroscience and trauma research.

Additionally, several effective trauma-based therapies continue to evolve that move past symptom management and focus on healing the source of the trauma. Much has been done in these areas, and everyone does better when they can, but much more needs to be done, and we must insist on embedding trauma-informed perspectives into mainstream systems, including education, mental health, and social services. Failing to act and/or advocate for change will not only ensure that we continue to share in the trauma but will reinforce this trauma-sharing for generations!

Categories Brain, School, Trauma
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