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happy boy with magnifyingIt makes sense that knowing how to access available resources makes even the most difficult situations easier to manage. Unfortunately it’s a skill that many children with histories of early trauma lack. Their perception of the world as a frightening, hostile place limits their ability to seek out help or support. In their minds, asking for help is shameful, a further indication that they are incompetent or vulnerable.

Trauma-sensitive environments make a conscious effort to model help seeking behaviors. Adults use the sports casting strategy to demonstrate how they rely on others to solve problems or contribute to their quality of life. For example, when trying to move a heavy object, the adult may say: “I’m going to ask Marcy to help me with this. She’s got great upper body strength.”  Or, the adult might say “I felt cranky this morning because I didn’t get enough sleep. So I stopped by to see my friend Michael. I knew he would know just what to say to make me feel better”.

The next step is asking children to take on a helper role. “Joshua, I noticed you are a whiz when it comes to downloading music. Can you show me how you do it? I just can’t seem to master that skill.” The goal is to shift children’s perception of help seeking behavior as a sign of weakness to a sign of good problem solving behavior.

Service learning is another strategy used in trauma-sensitive environments to change children’s perceptions of help seeking behaviors. Participation in volunteer activities, community food drives, even recycling projects expand children’s perception of themselves to include the ability to serve as a resource to others. Feedback from recipients of thanking children for their contributions, introduces them to the interconnections that characterize all human relationships.

Use ecological assessments of the environments children frequent on a daily basis to increase their awareness of who the “helpers” are in each setting. An ecological assessment is a structured observation with the goal of increasing children’s understanding of the roles played by various adults, and the resources they can provide access to. For example, a librarian can’t provide an ice pack for a sore knee, but the school nurse can. Mom can’t make cupcakes for the neighborhood party because she gets home to late from work. But Dad can because he gets home earlier.

As children’s ability to know who to ask for various types of assistance improves, they need to learn how to ask the right questions. Many children with early trauma histories, as well as some with other learning disabilities don’t know how to structure a question. Instead of saying, “I don’t know what you want me to do. Can you explain it again?” they say something like “I just don’t get it!” or “huh?” as their frustration and that of the listener grows. It helps to offer children question starters that they can use in various contexts: “What do you…….?”  “Can you help me…..?”  “How do I….?”

Used together, these strategies help children correct the misperceptions they have of help seeking behaviors, expand their world view to include a better understanding of the interconnectedness between themselves and others, and eventually learn to access resources on their own.