Stay The Course
She sits at the end of the hall and refuses to talk. This feisty and often-smiling teenager is, at the moment, stuck in “mood”, if you will; an unhealthy state of mind. She’s most likely operating in her back brain, or brain stem. She can’t see her way clear to trust the adults so that she can process through her emotions.
Her brain is generating her body’s response to trauma even though she’s not in danger at this moment. She has experienced abuse over and over. Her brain has developed altered pathways owing to the repeated trauma. She can’t trust that the world is safe.
That’s how complex trauma affects kids.
And as caregivers, our natural impulse is to reassure her that she is safe. We want to talk. We think that engaging her in conversation will make her feel better. Sure she is fourteen years old but her body’s responses are often the same as a baby.
What she really needs right now is for a caring adult to come alongside her. She’s not ready to talk. She’s not ready to access the areas of her brain which will allow her to think critically. She needs comfort and stability. She needs peace.
She will eventually be ready to talk and think at a more sophisticated level. She will be able to access the cerebrum; the cortex. She will be able to employ the area of the brain associated with higher function. But we have to give her time.
We can’t rush. And we can’t give up
She needs our presence. She needs our attunement.
Sometimes it’s difficult to just sit. Our desire is to fix things. We want to talk it out and tell her how everything will be okay. Tamp down that urge and approach her as you would a crying infant.
Let her know you’re there. Try being playful. Try being silly. Try engaging her in a game that involves rhythm or movement - not a board game! Maybe you could sing a song. Perhaps a walk would help. How about dancing to a great song that you play over your phone?
Think of some of the ways you would soothe a crying baby. You’ll have to modify a few of those approaches - it’s awkward to rock a teenager in a rocking chair but it’s funny to try! How about a stacking game? Grab a bunch of little paper cups and see how high you can stack them. Just think like a parent!
I find that kids really enjoy rolling around on a big stability ball. They sit on it and roll back and forth. They stretch across the ball on their bellies and roll around. Sometimes they even like just aimlessly rolling the stability ball across the hall to me and catching it when I roll it back.
The purpose in all of your approaches is to make her feel safe. She needs to know that you care and that you will stay with her to make sure that she’s not alone.
Richard L. Evans said, “Children will not remember you for the material things you provided but for the feeling that you cherished them.”
Change the history of experiences for her. Show her how much she is cherished.
Eventually, after you’ve shown her enough times that you care, she will begin to believe. But you’ll need to hang tight. It won’t happen quickly. She has a lot of history in which she was made to feel unloved and unworthy of love. But when she finally begins to believe in her lovability, you’ll witness the sunrise of faith in herself begin to bloom. When she finally begins to believe in you and in herself, there will be no limits to the beauty and opportunity in her life!
And all because you refused to give up.