In our work with families over the past thirty years, we have learned that children whose emotional and physical needs are not met grow into adults who have the same needs as the children they bring into the world. In order to serve children, we must also serve parents. As a result of trauma, abuse, neglect, abandonment, and loss, folks often struggle with mental health issues, addiction, poverty, crime, and lack of education. In serving our parents, we take into account these concurrent struggles, creating safety so that parents can grow beyond the traumas that inhibit them from achieving healthy relationships with their children.
The Theory: Trauma and the brain
In the past ten years, much has been learned about the impact of trauma on the brain. Dr. Bruce Perry, senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy has studied the impact of trauma on children’s brains and their ability to function. When children experience ongoing traumatic experiences, unsafe environments, and neglect over a period of time, their brains change as a result. A chronic state of perceived and real danger creates a condition called toxic stress. Children who live with toxic stress find it difficult to conform to a world that does not understand their situation or their biological responses.
When a person’s safety is threatened, such as when they experience trauma, they respond reflexively in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. Fight involves confrontation; flight is a physical removal of oneself; and freeze is dissociation, or shutting down the response system. These three reactions lead to dysregulation.
The five conditions listed below are triggers that lead to dysregulation in children (and parents) who have experienced trauma and toxic stress:
- A power differential – people who have been harmed by authority often become dysregulated around authority figures.
- Criticism and judgment – people who have received much criticism, such as verbal abuse, shaming, and discouragement, become dysregulated when they are criticized.
- Direction/being controlled by others – people who have been harmed by authority become dysregulated when authority figures direct or attempt to control them.
- Transitions – people who have experienced unpredictable trauma feel dysregulated by changing environments and activities.
- Novelty – people who have experienced repeated trauma find it difficult to trust and often become dysregulated when entering new situations or meeting new people.
The Problem: Toxic Stress
Toxic Stress is the result of living in a chronically unsafe physical and emotional environment. When humans are not safe, their brains adapt by releasing chemicals that keep them on high alert. A chronic, long-term posture of high vigilance and reactivity leads to changes in the brain that impact the ability to regulate, create relationships, and use higher reasoning powers; accurate perception, sound judgment, decision-making, problem solving, and insight become difficult. People who feel unsafe have difficulty feeling calm, trusting others, and engaging in complex thought.
Recently, toxic stress has become a subject of study by organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and Early Head Start. Harvard has published a series of articles addressing toxic stress and asking important questions about how it can be prevented or eliminated. Among several potential solutions suggested in the series, the parent-child relationship was one of the most important.
In discussing a new program started by Early Head Start, Clancy Blair, professor of applied psychology at New York University, said, “as much as possible, Early Head Start should be focusing on parent-child interaction, because that’s where the rubber hits the road; that’s where things are going to change for kids, and for caregivers as well.” Toxic stress is a debilitating problem; effective parenting is essential to its solution.
The Practice: Safety and Nurture
When people think of safety, they often imagine step-by-step guidelines for maintaining physical safety in a classroom or community space. At Samara, we focus on emotional safety. We strive to create a safe and nurturing space for our parents and children where they feel accepted as they are. Relationships form between staff and families and among the families themselves. Once this sense of safety is established, parents begin to relax and process their own experiences of trauma and loss. They learn new skills and knowledge; they begin to change from within.
Along with safety, we provide nurture to both parents and children. Food is an important component of each program. Parents and children are served a home cooked dinner together with staff. The children’s program staff involve children in chopping apples and kneading bread that will be baked and later enjoyed at snack time. Each evening, the parents are nurtured as well. We give them small gifts, paint with them, play games, read a fairytale and engage them in a variety of experiences that are unfamiliar to many of them. These gifts and activities are given freely without expectation, as a kind parent gives to a child. Experiencing nurture first hand allows parents to begin to imagine ways to nurture their own children. Upon hearing a delightful description of a bedtime routine and receiving a small basket with toiletries, one mom created bath baskets for her teenage sons. She said that they loved them.
“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible — the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”
~ Virginia Satir