TLC GUEST BLOGGER: Carmen Richardson, MSW, RSW, RCAT, REAT
“She danced to free her spirit and to free other spirits too…she danced for the living and for the dead in birth and in mourning for peace, beauty and creative expression.” –Shiloh Sophia
Trauma and the Body
What happens to a child or adolescent’s relationship to their body when they have experienced trauma? When trauma happens there is significant impact on our physiological, emotional and psychological states. The ability to delight in and feel safe within our body becomes impaired. In essence trauma has the potential to create a disconnection to the body. Children learn and begin to believe things like, “My body is not safe,” “My body cannot be trusted” and “I feel chaotic and out of control.”
In therapy we want to activate the necessary function of the left hemisphere, which is shut down during trauma experience. The body is a key entryway to help with this activation. Stein & Kendall (2004) state that the neurological basis for providing body-focused interventions such as expressive arts is:
“…because traumatic memories are often firmly lodged in the right hemisphere, children tend to be controlled by negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors. Thus an important goal of treatment is to help children process experience through as many modalities as possible (i.e. images, thoughts, emotions, sensations, and movement), and to design experiences that can activate both hemispheres, especially the left (i.e. experiences that stimulate positive emotions and encourage initiative and action.” (p.137).
van der Kolk (2005) emphasizes the need for interventions that involve movement and pleasure. He states:
“Complexly traumatized children need to be helped to engage their attention in pursuits that do not remind them of trauma-related triggers and that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery. Safety, predictability and “fun” are essential for the establishment of the capacity to observe what is going on, put it into a larger context, and initiate physiological and motoric self-regulation. Only after children develop the capacity to focus on pleasurable activities without becoming disorganized do they have a chance to develop the capacity to play with other children, engage in simple group activities, and deal with more complex issues.” (p. 407).
As trauma-informed practitioners, it is useful to understand how we can bring awareness to the impact of trauma on the body and how to support the reconnection to the sensory experiences of feeling free and safe within the body.
The Body’s Natural Language is Movement
Mindful movement brings one back into the body. We can help children and youth re-establish healthy connections to their bodies and help repair any disruptions of their own attachment to their bodies by designing safe ways to connect to the body through awareness and movement. If we offer a safe, creative play space for our clients, the repair through mindful movements can assist with:
- increasing trust in the body’s integrity
- reestablishing a sense of pleasure and ability to delight in positive sensations
- creating opportunities for self-soothing experiences
- experiencing power within their own body through self-regulating experiences (i.e. move from sadness to playfulness)
As therapists we help children notice the sensations associated to their inner world, we invite experiences and experiments to expand the sensations and then teach how to savor these positive sensations/feelings. These experiences help children begin to experience in a bodily way, the innate ability of their body to experience play, pleasure and calm.
We do not have to be trained dance/movement therapists to integrate play, gesture, movement into our practice with young people. Movement is a natural part of our life, however, we may have been conditioned to primarily use talk therapy and to stay still and stay put in our respective client-therapist chairs. We are conditioned as human beings to live mostly in our heads, moving in the world as though we don’t have bodies. If we check within ourselves as therapists, we will likely encounter our own notions/ideas about moving in therapy – perhaps our own discomfort in our bodies. It is important that we feel comfortable moving in our own bodies if we are to invite our clients to engage in mindful movements.
Ideas for Practice
The following are some simple ways to bring movement into the creative therapeutic space in our work with children/teens. It is not only the activity itself that can be healing, it is the mindful awareness we bring to the movement, that is noticing the sensations that are aroused, to be curious about them and to invite experimentation through movement (i.e. “What movement expands that openness in your chest – when we stretch way up high or when you put your hand on your chest?”).
1. Beginning of Sessions (fun openings that increase sense of pleasure and playfulness)
- toss a ball
- play with sticks (I have 3’ long doweling sticks that I painted a variety of colors) -use these sticks to balance between two people or on your own
- various games with tossing balloons
- blowing bubbles
2. Middle of Sessions (used within a structured and evidence-based approach to treating trauma such as Structured Sensory Interventions – TLC)
- show me the hurt – gestures, dance
- use the drum to tell the story of the hurt
- body scan – tuning into the inner world of feelings and sensations and mapping them out on a life-size body outline, find movements/gestures that correspond with those sensations and feelings
- use stories and rhymes to act out the various rhythms of fight, flight, freeze
3. Ending Sessions (returns the body to a sense of calm, playfulness, self-presence and we are grounded in the here and now)
- Movement Thumb Ball (I love this ball – if you are coming to the Summer Assembly, pick one up at the Self-Esteem Shop!)
- play songs our clients like and dance with scarves
- Yoga Deck – client chooses a card and we make the pose
- mirroring movement with or without music (one person moves and the other follows, switch roles)
Just a reminder: These are not just therapeutic activities to be used randomly. They are important interventions that are part of a well-thought-out practice framework that guides the treatment of trauma in children and teens.
“She danced to free her spirit and to free other spirits too…
She danced for the living and for the dead
in birth and in mourning
for peace, beauty and creative expression.”
Stien, P. & Kendall, J. (2004). Psychological trauma and the developing brain: Neurologically based interventions for troubled children. New York: Haworth Press.
van der Kolk, B. (2005). Developmental trauma disorder: Towards a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric Annals. 35(5), 401-408.
As Mother’s Day and Father’s Day approach, families look for ways to let our loved ones know how much they appreciate them. For those who are separated from or have lost a parent or a child due to death or illness, this can be a time of sadness.
Reminiscing about a meaningful time with that loved one is a wonderful way to ease the pain and celebrate the time you had together. The question is, how do you recall those significant memories?
The best way to start is to follow your nose, since the senses are proven to help trigger significant long-term memories. You can also round up some old photos or objects to help you recall significant events from the past.
As you share your memory with others, even a sentence or two can grow into a story. Here are some prompts to get you started:
- Is there a certain aroma, such as a particular perfume, bread baking in the oven or fresh mowed grass, which reminds you of a special time in your life?
- Do sounds, like grating and chopping in the kitchen, a certain song or the slamming of the back porch screen door, trigger any memories?
- Perhaps a piece of jewelry, an article of clothing or furniture reminds you of your loved one.
Once you’ve found them, you can develop a simple ritual or family tradition from these memories such as baking your loved one’s favorite recipe, planting a tree or going fishing. This allows you to celebrate them in your own personal way.
Adapted from In My Mother’s Kitchen: An Introduction to the Healing Power of Reminiscence (copyright Robin A. Edgar, 2002).
TLC GUEST BLOGGER: Carmen Richardson, MSW, RSW, RCAT, REAT
April is National Poetry Month in North America. It is a time to celebrate poetry and increase awareness and appreciation for the gift of this art form. Poetry therapy is a form of bibliotherapy, which uses a wide range of literature/books for healing and personal growth. Poetry is one of many expressive arts modalities used therapeutically for a wide range of clinical issues, including the treatment of trauma (Levine & Kline, 2006, Loue, 2012, Nicholas, 2003). Like many art forms, it may often be dismissed as a therapeutic resource if we, as therapists, feel we lack the propensity to write poems. Yet poetry can be used within a solid therapeutic framework in a variety of ways.
I see these interventions as invitations to our clients, whether it is bringing created poems, lyrics or rhymes to the session or writing poetry. The following section outlines only some of the ways poetry may be incorporated in the therapy session:
1. Invitations: Use already created or well-known poems/stories. I have a folder with many poems, lyrics and quotes that I personally have loved or ones that clients have brought to me to use in their therapeutic work.
- “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” – Portia Nelson
- “Summer Day” – Mary Oliver
- “The Journey” – Mary Oliver
- “She Danced” – Shilo Sophia
- “Prelude” – Oriah Mountain Dreamer
- “Rhymes and Stories to Prevent and Heal Trauma” – Peter Levine and Maggie Kline
- “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf” – Leo Buscaglia
- “The Giving Tree” – Shel Silverstein
- “My Many Colored Days” – Dr. Suess
- “The Velveteen Rabbit” – Margery Williams
As therapists, we may have a sense, in terms of right timing, to share a poem or story that may have meaning for our clients. I also invite my clients to bring a special poem, quote or story that is important to them. We then use that writing in our work. How has this poem or story been important to them? Is there a particular line that stands out? What if they took that line and used it as a starting point to their own poem or story?
Another intervention is to invite our client to read the poem. It is sometimes in the reading of the poem in their own voice that the connection to the meaning and essence of the writing becomes clearer. We can really slow down this process and stay with whatever emotion arises.
2. Use poem prompts. Using prompts can be a nice springboard to the inner world of our clients. Some prompt ideas include:
- My hurt is like…My body is…I feel most alive when…The “me” nobody knows…The inside “me”…The outside “me”…
- Write a poem with the title: “No One Heard Me” or “The Feelings I Hide”
- Or write a poem in the voice of a young girl or boy or in the voice of a hero or superstar.
3. Intermodal use of poetry. In a session, if we have started with creating a visual image (i.e. a painting), we may then move to writing one-word responses to the image. I will write out all the words that come to them as they observe their piece. If it is hard to get started, I may offer up some words to begin with. I hand them the words and invite them to create a written response to their piece. Having the one-word responses offers a framework that may be easier to write from than just from the imagination.
On a more personal note, poetry saved my life as a teen. There were certainly no formal resources readily available, and “talking” about problems wasn’t encouraged. I turned to writing poems. My own suffering found a home in words strung together to make sense of untouchable hurts. It was like the poem provided the container for an event or an intense emotion and helped to move it outside of the body and hold it safely, which provided distance, relief and inner calm. Poems came again to my assistance through the grief of my mom dying of cancer and the long process of her illness. The poems seemed to document what I was witnessing and needed to be witnessed through the sharing of my poems with a trusted friend. Still, to this day, I tend to turn toward the arts, in particular to creative writing, as a way to sift through the “stuff of life,” including both the sorrows and the joys.
In my therapy office, I keep a journal that is waiting for me to fill the pages with my responses to what I witness as therapist. These responses reflect the stories and sufferings of many children, teens and adults I see on a daily basis. This journal is my companion. It is reliable, ever ready, even encouraging me, and, at times, begging me to take the time to spill open onto the pages with words and images that surface in my own inner world as a therapist.
Recently I asked a 15-year-old girl with a significant trauma history how poetry or writing has helped her on her life’s journey. Almost immediately she exclaimed, “Get me a paper, get me a pen!” I did, and these are the words that tumbled out within a few minutes:
The steady beat of my heart,
Sounding like the drums of war.
Blood pumping through my veins
coursing like a fire.
As the voice of reason whispers,
“Write it down on this page.”
TLC GUEST BLOGGER: Barb Dorrington, MEd
What is it our brains need most? Much of brain science talks about safety, predictability and nurturing as key ingredients to help the brain thrive. As a school social worker, many of the principals at my school board have developed these same concepts into more user-friendly words for teachers. The simple questions asked by an administrator for a suspendable consequence were: “Was your action fair? Was it kind? Was it respectful?” One particular principal expelled a student for assaulting a teacher and used these questions. The end result was that same expelled student shook hands with the administrator while leaving the school with a police officer, returning a few days later to pay money for previously unpaid school fees. It leaves one to ponder what took place to cause such a responsible result from a particularly troubled student?
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Studies investigates connections between child maltreatment and later-in-life health difficulties. All the small daily traumas of life create our attitudes and shape our personalities. What can help? History has shown that we continue to feel closest to those people who provide us with a consistently safe and nurturing haven. Likely that student felt protected and safe in the school environment and with that caring principal, even though he was being expelled for an assault.
According to Mark Brady, a neurocscience editor, grandparents have a special place in the hearts of children and stave off the isolation, loneliness and disconnection of hard daily living. He suggests that it is not the number of positive interactions but rather the quality, timeliness and rhythm of these positive interactions. His big brain question to each grandparent is, “Are you there for me?” If that answer is a resounding yes, then that child is acknowledged and feels validated. Brain science supports this need for such affirming repetition to change those dusty ruts in our brains into new strong neural superhighways.
While for some it may be the unconditional love of a grandparent, I had a wonderful Aunt Helen who told my parents I had a lazy eye at the age of two and they needed to attend to it. Some years later, she told them that I needed help with braces on my teeth. My parents loved me but they were busy and led rather chaotic lives, not necessarily vigilant about certain practical matters. Aunt Helen watched over me until her own death. She validated my existence. I always knew my Aunt Helen would be there for me, and I still ask myself, “What would Aunt Helen say?” In turn, I now ask clients about the adult that made the difference for them as children. It is a natural, safe place for us—and people of all ages—to share their stories of the person who made the difference.
The programs at TLC are solidly research-based and designed to validate the experiences of each survivor we help. TLC Founder Dr. William Steele talks about shifting victims to survivors and ultimately thrivers. While TLC offers many programs that honor the work we do with survivors, the website is full of personal stories and articles that are free to read. Do consider attending a workshop at one of the TLC assemblies, as the connection with other like-minded people is well worth the effort.
TLC Guest Blogger: Lori Gill, M.A.
I recently had a client mention they were told—by a therapist—that they were not stable enough for therapy. This really shocked me and caused me to wonder: If we can’t stabilize in therapy, where can we stabilize? This paired with a psychiatrist telling a client she was not stable enough for trauma therapy really got me thinking there is still a considerable lack of awareness regarding what trauma therapy is and how it works. As a result, I thought I would focus on a few areas where there seems to be some confusion. Trauma therapy by a qualified and Certified Trauma Specialist ensures that the therapist has an understanding of trauma—how it impacts the body, the mind and behavior—and knows how to work in a safe and ethical manner to create stability.
Safety & Structure:
A qualified trauma therapist understands the key features of trauma are a sense of terror and powerlessness, occurring primarily at a sensory level. As a result, the primary focus of intervention is to instill a sense of safety, beginning with sensory interventions. A trauma therapist should be willing to slow down treatment to focus on addressing and resolving the underlying issues in a safe and secure manner to allow for externalizing, containment and reconstruction. The programs provided by TLC provide an excellent framework for safe, structured sensory interventions. I have used TLC’s various programs with children as young as two and with adults up to 65 years of age and have consistently observed great success including the reduction of trauma-related symptoms. You can review the various evidence-based trauma intervention programs at TLC’s online bookstore.
A trauma therapist also understands how the brain becomes hardwired and associations are formed that cause us to respond in rigid, automatic ways, rather than how we would want to respond. They understand that it is not that the brain is “not working” properly during a trauma state, rather it is actually working quite effectively, but it is operating from a place of survival due to an actual or perceived threat. This means that while we may observe behaviors that seem unusual or disproportionate, we must keep in mind that although the behaviors may not make sense to us, they are functional for the individual at some level. This may be represented through hyperarousal or dissociative continuums, which are actually protective mechanisms.
Behaviors exhibited following trauma may commonly be misinterpreted by those lacking an awareness of trauma and its impact. For example when in a heightened state of arousal reactions may seem unusual to others, prompting inaccurate diagnosis, these behaviors make sense to the individual acting from a state of survival:
- Fight - We may see verbal or physical aggression or excessive reactions, which may be misinterpreted as behavioral or attention seeking. This may also be perceived as oppositional behavior, ADHD, anxious/aggressive-type behavior and may be representative of traumatized youth in conflict with the law.
- Flight – We may see individuals trying to escape or avoid circumstances, people, places and things (avoidance, kids running away, etc.) difficulty with isolation and social skills.
- Freeze – When unable to fight back or flee, we may see psychological protective responses such as trying to escape through numbing or dissociation. This may present as daydreaming behavior, inattention, inability to focus and concentrate, disorganization, etc., resulting in a diagnosis of ADD. The frozen stare of an individual immobilized by fear may also be interpreted as oppositional or passive-aggressiveness (freeze-fight).
- Surrender response – We may also observe compliance. This can be misinterpreted as agreement, when in reality it may be that they do not feel they will be heard or have expressed their feelings only to have them be ignored.
*It is crucial that we allow children to express how they feel and be heard!
*It is important to note that fight-flight-freeze behaviors are not mutually exclusive and may occur simultaneously as well.
TLC offers training providing foundational information about trauma and its impact, leading to certification as a Trauma Specialist. To learn more visit www.starrtraining.org/trauma-certification. One of the online courses TLC offers focuses on the differential diagnosis between ADHD and PTSD.
A trauma therapist understands it is not that we “don’t” but rather sometimes we “can’t.” The behaviors and experiences that result are not contrived but are automatic processes governed by need for survival in the moment. During this time, higher-order brain functions not deemed necessary for survival are placed on hold to optimize those perceived vital to survival. Therefore those higher-order cognitive functions and executive control functions may not be accessible. When presenting brain function to clients, we need to do so from a space of genuineness and compassion, normalizing the way their brain and body is responding and associated symptoms as being common to trauma. Many already experience guilt and self-blame. Helping them understand these symptoms are normal and occur at an automatic and largely subconscious level helps reduce some of the associated guilt, blame and magical thinking. TLC’s book “Brave Bart” is an excellent tool for identifying and normalizing common trauma reactions.
Compassion, education and empowerment are so important for those who have experienced trauma. TLC Certified Trauma Consultant – Supervisor Cherie Spehar nicely summarizes the needs of those who are wounded by trauma and how we can help them heal: notice me, understand me, soothe me. If we can provide this, we can help create a sense of safety, empowerment and healing.
TLC GUEST BLOGGER: Carmen Richardson, MSW, RSW, RCAT, REAT
A mentoring relationship is one in which one person offers wisdom and expertise to another. These relationships are believed to be life changing.
Magic is defined as having the power to influence by using mysterious powers. Perhaps it really isn’t so much that these relationships are magic. Yet, what is it then, that this kind of relationship offers a young person?
I began asking young people I knew or worked with and older people about the mentors in their lives. I asked what it was that made that person a mentor and how that relationship influenced their lives. The following are some of the gifts they reportedly received in the mentoring relationship:
- Belief in self
- Practical support
How did this relationship influence their life?
“I started to believe in myself and really wanted to help others.”
“I went to university. I never dreamed I had it in me!”
“His passion for learning lit a fire in me. I became a teacher.”
“I chose to live.”
Think back over your own life. Who made a difference in your world? A teacher, coach, friend, parent, sibling? There were no mentoring programs back in my day growing up in a small prairie town, however, I can certainly think of a few people who changed my life. There was Jackie, the woman I babysat for as a teenager. When she would come home, more often than not, we sat together talking into the night. There were many things that stood out for me about that relationship. One was that she listened. Even back then I knew that this was no small gift. She asked me questions. She cared. She had a strong faith. She was a lifeline through a stormy adolescence. The other relationship that stood out for me was with Sr. Doreen. Still, to this day, I call her my first “emotional mother figure.” She had similar qualities as I described in Jackie. Sr. Doreen supported me in a way I had never experienced. She believed in me, celebrated small day-to-day life experiences, and she was a role model that I longed to be. For the first time in my life, I felt really “seen and heard,” truly an essential ingredient to becoming “real,” as the Velveteen Rabbit would say. And yes, there was a certain “magic” in those life-changing influences that both of these relationships had on my future.
Research shows that mentoring works (Ahrens, DuBois, Richardson, Fan, & Lozano, 2008; Cavell, DuBois, Karcher,Keller, & Rhodes, 2009; Rhodes, & DuBois, 2006). In fact, some studies show that mentoring can help in the following ways:
- Academic Achievement: better attendance, more likely to graduate, better attitudes toward school, more likely to go on to higher education
- Health and Safety: prevent substance abuse, lowers engaging in negative, delinquent behaviors
- Social and Emotional Development: better relationships with peers and parents, overall better communication skills, increased self-esteem
Trauma practitioners are mentors, too…
In the spirit of the mentoring relationship, there are many elements of that connection that are similar in the relationships trauma practitioners develop with their clients. I look at the list of gifts that people I talked with said they received from the mentoring relationship. I believe these are gifts that we, as trauma practitioners, cultivate and offer those who experience trauma. We offer hope, inspiration, encouragement, belief in self, comfort/caring, practical support and wisdom. There are certainly similarities between the role of mentor and trauma practitioners. The beauty in all of these relationships is that there is reciprocity in the experience of being mentor and/or clinician. It is in giving that we receive such important ingredients for life, such as a sense of aliveness, contentment, satisfaction, hope and so much more!
Whether it is acknowledging the mentoring work we are already doing or getting further involved in our communities in other mentoring capacities, The National Mentoring Month website identifies many ways to get involved:
- Find local mentoring resources and begin utilizing them.
- Learn about National Mentoring Month.
- Consider becoming a mentor yourself.
- Find ways to partner with local mentoring programs.
- Thank your mentor.
- Make a donation to a local mentoring organization.
- Research and learn about the amazing impact that mentoring can have on the lives and future of youth.
- Jan. 10 is “I am a mentor” day. Do something!
- Jan. 21 – Join Martin Luther King Day of Service. Use this day to highlight the importance of mentoring.
- Learn about the many and varied mentoring relationships – academic, social, etc. – with children and teens.
In honor of National Mentoring Month, I toast and hold up the Jackies and Sr. Doreens of the world who offer themselves and truly make a difference in the lives of others. As I write this, I wonder if they knew how important they were in my life. Perhaps you might be inspired to get involved in your own community, or maybe you will pick up the phone and call someone who made a difference in your life and let them know. Whatever it may be, may we remember, as this year progresses, that whatever we do, we do it with a grateful heart.
“Do stuff, be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on our forehead. Pay attention. It‘s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”
- S. Sontag
Carmen Richardson MSW, RSW, RCAT, REAT
Ahrens, K.R., DuBois, D.L., Richardson, L.P., Fan, M.Y., & Lozano, P. (2008). Youth in foster care with adult mentors during adolescence have improved adult outcomes. The online version of this article, along with updated information and services, is located on the World Wide Web at: http://www.pediatrics.org/cgi/content/full/peds.2007-0508v1
Cavell, T., DuBois, D., Karcher, M., Keller, T., & Rhodes, J. (2009). Strengthening mentoring opportunities for at-risk youth. Policy Brief.
Rhodes, J. E., & DuBois, D. L. (2006). Understanding and facilitating the youth mentoring movement. Social Policy Report, 20(3). Available online at: