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We can promote healing and resilience for traumatized youth

By Melissa Persing

Young girl and community demonstrators in face masksChildhood traumas can have serious repercussions. The ground-breaking CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study revealed that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in young children harm the structure and function of the brain, change how a person responds to stress and raise the risk for chronic disease as an adult.

This study identified 10 such early traumas:

  • Physical, sexual and verbal abuse
  • Physical and emotional neglect
  • A family members who is:
    • Depressed or diagnosed with other mental illness
    • Addicted to alcohol or another substance
    • In prison
  • Witnessing a mother being abused
  • Losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reasons

ACEs are common. Of the 17,000 people in the original study, nearly two-thirds (64%) of adults had had at least one. Subsequent studies measured additional ACEs and took into account protective factors, historical trauma and epigenetics. Comparable results were found in studies conducted at least once in 47 states and Washington, D.C.

Healing practices

Fortunately, there is hope. Damage caused by ACEs is mitigated by protective factors. The first and most important is a secure attachment to a primary caregiver. This supportive relationship counteracts the damaging effects of traumatic experiences. The caregiver is responsive, buffers the child from adversity, builds skills to adapt to adversity, and creates positive experiences. Other protective factors include the child’s temperament, intellectual capacity and social competence.

Additionally, resilience is possible due to the high plasticity of the brain that allows it to heal and change with new environments. Mindfulness practices, exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and healthy social interactions further allow people's brains and bodies to heal.

What can youth workers do to promote resilience? 

  • It's important to learn more about the ACEs study as this was a very brief overview. Start conversations with community members from a variety of sectors to build community understanding. Learn trauma-informed practices to apply to the programs you work in. These practices teach skills such as mindfulness, executive function and self-regulatory skills, as well as how to avoid triggers that may re-traumatize youth.
  • Encourage health-promoting activities such as regular physical exercise and stress-reduction practices. Build opportunities for developmental relationships with youth and between youth in your programs.
  • Practice mindfulness and model healthy behaviors for the youth and other adults in your life. 

We must consider how youth workers can help young people going through historic and profound events like pandemic lockdowns and racial strife. How can we help youth heal from their past while navigating present trauma? What other opportunities do you see for staff to introduce and promote resilience in young people in youth development programs?

-- Melissa Persing, Extension educator

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  1. I do believe that Youth Workers can model positive social and emotional skills that show youth good practices and coping mechanisms. We can also have open dialogue about different techniques people use and help youth try and decided what works best for them. Thanks Melissa for asking the question and letting me have space to share my thoughts.

    1. You are welcome Karyn. Maintaining our own emotional health and modeling those practices are such an important first step to helping youth learn healing practices. I think it is important for youth development professionals to become competent in a variety of practices so we are able to see which is most beneficial for the youth in our programs. Good luck with your continued work in social emotional learning.

  2. Thank you for bringing up this topic, Melissa. This impacts so much of our work, and I believe it is one of our biggest opportunities to make an impact.

    Providing youth a safe space to be authentically seen and heard, recognizing that some challenging behaviors might actually be adaptive strategies for survival, and giving youth the language and tools to process their emotions and their experience are a few ways we can help.

    It's also important that we educate ourselves on historical trauma, and how that continues to affect a large number of communities we work with.

    1. Understanding the life experiences of other people is an ongoing process. When I begin to think I am starting to glimpse an understanding of one people's life path, I realize there are so many other people who have lived or are currently living through their own trauma. Listening and learning with humility, compassion and understanding is important as we serve as active allies to building equity in our program and our communities. Thank you Katie for being an example of compassionate youth work as you strive to bring equity to the young people whom you are working.

  3. Thank you Melissa for lifting up the ACE's study and it's timeliness to our work. You provide a positive reminder of the opportunity we as youth workers have in making a difference in the lives of the youth we work with. These are stressful times, but together we can make it a better place for all. Asking the questions of what can we do to help youth heal is a great place to start.

    1. Thanks for your comments Carrie. Children living in environments with toxic stress over a prolonged time frames develop attitudes and behaviors that at first glance are quite disturbing to the average youth worker. Changing our mindset of "What's wrong with you?" to "What happened to you?" bring a new level of compassion that our youth so desperately need. Relationships are key to start building trust and resilience. Thanks for what you do to tool our volunteers with the importance of developmental relationships.

  4. Thank you bringing up such a timely topic, Melissa. I was drawn to your statement, "Fortunately, there is hope." As youth workers, I believe developmental relationships are critical and contribute to protective factors. While it can be challenging to create space for those relationships to grow, I wonder how others schedule or devote time to the important work of relationship-building?

    1. That is a great question Becky. A young teenager from our church saw me at a store the other day. I caught his eye and he waved. I was so glad he was comfortable enough to acknowledge he knew me. This turned into a lively conversation about basketball (he's a dedicated player), summer plans, and how hot the weather was that day. I left the conversation wondering when I'd be able to visit with him again. Intentional relationship building takes time and persistence. Helping youth feel connected to caring adults in their community is a key indicator for health for a reason.

  5. I indeed have seen how especially the George Floyd killing has re-triggered trauma in young people who have had previous traumas. I agree with you, Melissa, that one of our key roles as youth workers can be to support them in building resilience. I find that I, in turn, learn volumes from them about resilience and perseverance in the face of tremendous suffering. Thanks for addressing this topic, Melissa.

    1. We truly are benefactors of youth insights and wisdom when we come into space together to discuss the issues in our world. As you know, this blog is just a tip of the ice berg on this topic and many crucially important related topics that are so relevant to youth work. May we be partners together in this journey Kathryn.


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