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Sunday / July 21

The Trauma of Adversity—and the Power of Agency

Group of teachers and students Standing Indoors facing a chalkboard

The Buddhists are right. Life is filled with adversity, injustice, loneliness, disease, suffering, and death.  These experiences are not new, a sign of the times, or evidence of maladjustment—they have always been an integral part of life.  What is new is the frequency with which these events have become traumatic.

Increasingly, research is showing that many parts of living can be traumatic, and trauma can no longer be conceptualized as a harmful event that happens to an individual.  A global pandemic, racism, and poverty have created a degree of trauma in most of us.  These experiences are compounded by the adversities all children experience. Experiencing and healing from trauma is an inherent part of growth.

Peter Levine has spent over 50 years studying trauma, and in addition to a publishing several books on the topic, he has developed a naturalistic and neurobiological approach to healing trauma.  Levine explains that there are two elements to trauma: First, there must be a painful event that triggers our survival response.  Secondly, this event must create a sense of helplessness.

The role of helplessness sheds light on some of the most challenging aspects of trauma. Take, for example, two children being bullied at school.  One student when bullied attempts to run away, but the bullies follow her.  She tries to stay home sick, but her parents see past her efforts and send her to school.  She tells her teachers, but this only compounds the bullying.  Over time, this child may conclude she can’t escape the bullying and will need to accept it.  As a result of this learned helplessness, the child will shift her attention away from trying to stop or escape the bullying toward coping with it.  Coping may entail repression, acting out, numbing the pain, or avoiding recess.  This experience will likely lead to trauma and create fears, sadness, and anxieties in the child.

In contrast, when a student is being bullied and finds ways to avoid the bullies by playing with different friends, standing up to the bully, or talking with an adult who successfully intervenes, the child is more likely to experience increased confidence and agency.  The experience of being bullied followed by a successful resolution to the problem provides the student with a sense of control and confidence that she can navigate the world.

In the second example, the same experience has a completely different meaning.  What was the difference?  The second child attempted a number of strategies and eventually was able to find a way to stop the pain of bullying.  The first child also tried a number of strategies, none of which stopped the bullying. The first child came to believe that she is powerless to stop bullying, so her focus shifted to learning to live with the pain.  In contrast, the child who found a strategy to stop the pain grew from the experience and developed greater confidence in her ability to handle challenges and navigate her world.

In the first instance, a fearful event combined with helplessness created trauma. There are two pathways to empowering and healing young people from the trauma they are experiencing.

Working to create safe and inclusive communities can prevent the social pains of rejection and isolation that hurt so many young people.  By addressing the sense of disconnection many young people feel and by rebuilding communities so that there are more opportunities for kids to create relationships, we can provide more kids with the sense of safety that is necessary for physical and psychological well-being.  My book Belonging: How Social Connection Can Heal, Educate and Empower Kids, covers how to do this in more detail.

Additionally, it takes more than a harmful event to cause trauma; these events must be paired with a sense of helplessness.  Many young people today feel powerless and overwhelmed by the challenges they face at school and the onslaught of negativity they hear on social media. Combined with witnessing the ugliness and fighting of the adult world, these pressures can create chronic stress that leaves children’s developing nervous systems overwhelmed and vulnerable.  Additionally, childhood is a time when we are dependent on others, highly vulnerable and often helpless to protect ourselves.  This pervasive sense of helplessness leaves many kids especially vulnerable to trauma and means that virtually any negative experience can impact their feeling of safety.

When we help young people focus on the things they can control and the actions they can take to prevent, stop, or heal from the painful experiences, we can eliminate one of the necessary ingredients for trauma, a sense of helplessness.  Agency is a feeling of control over one’s actions and consequences, the opposite of the helplessness trauma with which victims struggle.  This spirit of agency is the energy that gives victims of abuse, tragedy, illness, and oppression the power to change lives and be a light in the darkness.

A central theme in many forms of trauma therapy is restoring a sense of agency. As Paul Conti explains, helping kids rediscover who you they were before the trauma is critical. While there are many avenues for empowering students with agency, it is important to understand that discovering one’s personal power is a developmental process, especially for children who have suffered abuse and neglect.

Agency isn’t something that can be prompted or developed by reminding students that they are not victims. Teaching agency is a process of identifying and overcoming obstacles that progressively grow in size.  It is what happens when a child is in the zone of proximal development, struggling to master a new skill, finding and applying strategies.

For many kids, the experiences of rejection and isolation are the most pervasive causes of trauma.  Being rejected for being different or not living up to unrealistic standards of smart, popular, and pretty can create scars that last a lifetime. Because “hurt people hurt people,” the pains of rejection and judgment can quickly spread through a classroom and infect students, staff, and the culture. Cultivating a sense of agency in students can stop this spread. By helping students understand that, while they can’t change meanness and cruelty, there are many things they can do to help themselves and others. For example, lending a helping hand, building a strong network of friends and caregivers, and learning to love themselves.

Regardless of a child’s upbringing, skills, or status, they will all be confronted with suffering.  As the popular poet Shane Koyzcan explains, “The heaviest thing you will ever have to lift are your own spirits.”  When we empower kids with a sense of agency, they can develop skills to keep these events from the debilitating effects of trauma.

Written by

Dr.  Dustin Bindreiff has worked at every level of education beginning his career as a teacher’s aide to currently providing technical assistance to schools for special education services, equity and social emotional learning.  Working with underserved students for more than twenty years gave Dr. Bindreiff firsthand experience on the rising need for behavioral and mental health supports for kids throughout education.   These experiences have been paired with extensive research into equity, mental health, neuroscience, and building systems of supports.  This blend of research and practice has allowed him to help numerous schools improve their school climate, close achievement gaps, and build culturally responsive systems of supports. 

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