Working with adolescents who have experienced cumulative trauma

August 31, 2015

When we are born our brains have a remarkable capacity to learn anything and everything, with an infinite number of possible neuron connections.

Within the first 18 months of life our brains start to become more specialised, we have started to let go some of the connections that we do not need and have begun to strengthen those that we have needed most often.

A key influence on this process lies within our early life attachment systems. Our interaction with our primary caregivers and the world around us teaches us all we need to know about surviving. Most of the time, this provides us with the skills and capacity to manage our emotions, to interact with others appropriately and to begin to organise our thoughts.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, some caregivers may not be able to provide their infants with consistency, predictability and safety. These children grow up in an environment where it is in their best interests to be able to detect threat quickly and to develop responses that increase their chances of survival. Some of the responses might be by avoiding particular people when environmental cues tell them that they are unsafe, by making themself seem scary and tough in order to protect themselves, running away from danger, taking on the responsibilities that are generally that of a parent or by dissociating or blocking out the world around them.

When these young people move into environments that are safer and where danger is not present, their learnt responses and highly efficient threat detection system can cause considerable problems. What this looks like is an adolescent who has difficulty focusing (as their brain is constantly scanning their environment for signs of danger), who seems to “explode” at the slightest trigger, uses maladaptive methods to manage their emotions (e.g. damaging property, threatening others, consuming substances, running away),who avoids building secure and deep relationships due to an experience that others cannot be trusted and who may have a myriad of deep-seated negative beliefs about themselves and the world around them.

Generally these young people have difficulty remaining in mainstream schooling, have increased contact with the criminal justice system and fall through the cracks due to not quite meeting the criteria for support services or being considered too difficult to manage. The neural processes and behaviours that were previously essential to ensure survival are the same processes that lead to problems fitting in with broader society and with interacting with others effectively.

Working with adolescents who have experienced cumulative trauma is a key opportunity to support these young people to develop more adaptive skills to manage emotions, to heal from the pain they have experienced and to create alternate methods of relating with others. During adolescence there is a neural pruning period, where certain neural connections within the brain are cut away which makes room for the creation and strengthening of different connections.

If youth workers take the time to build the essential backbone of a strong, secure therapeutic relationship, have patience and demonstrate unconditional positive regard, they can, with repetition and consistency, assist young people to better manage their emotions, develop healthy relationships with others and to break down the barriers that prevent them from realising their goals and aspirations.

Cumulative trauma can have devastating effects on a young person’s life, but with the right supports they can heal from the damage and move towards a full and meaningful future.

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