Our View: Trauma-informed care helps build resilient children, families

Mother and Child

By Nora OBrien-Suric, Ph.D.

For better or worse, when celebrities speak, society pays attention. With this power, those living in the limelight can draw our attention to important issues.

In a recent report that aired on “60 Minutes,” Oprah Winfrey shined a spotlight on how an approach called trauma-informed care can address the impact of childhood trauma.

Winfrey, who experienced trauma as a child herself, said that what she learned about trauma-informed care has changed not only her perspective, but her philanthropic efforts across the world. As she said, “it’s a game changer.”

Research tells us that almost half of us will experience a traumatic event such as a significant loss, witnessing a violent crime, domestic violence, terrorism/war, or sexual abuse at some point in our lives. Traumatic events occur more often and have greater consequences for children of color and those impacted by poverty.

These experiences can have both an immediate and a long-lasting impact. Children who are exposed to toxic stress over an extended period of time can experience a physiological impact that can negatively impact their brain development and their health for the rest of their lives.

During an interview with Winfrey, Dr. Bruce Perry, a world-renowned expert in childhood trauma, explained that a child’s brain gets wired differently when they are raised in a chaotic or violent environment.

“If you have developmental trauma, the you’re going to be at risk for almost any kind of physical health, mental health, social health problem that you can think of,” he said.

On the flip side, investing in a child’s development from the time they are born until they are 5 years old results in positive social, cognitive and economic gains that last well beyond childhood. To realize these gains, children need to be in homes, schools and other safe environments that support their development and ability to thrive.

At the Health Foundation, we’ve been committed to improving children’s social and emotional health for the last several years through programs such as PEDALS and Help Me Grow and supporting children and families through the spread of evidence-based maternal and child health interventions like the Incredible Years.

But we can’t ignore the issue of trauma and toxic stress, so we recently commissioned a report in western New York to help us understand the impact of trauma, where there are gaps in services and what training providers need.

What we found told us that while we can’t prevent all traumatic events from happening, what we can do is work to mitigate the impact of these experiences and help children and families build resilience.

This requires a trauma-informed care approach.

Using a trauma-informed approach, agencies and individuals ranging from health care and social service providers to law enforcement officers to educators are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, their families, as well as staff; integrate knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures and practices; and work to prevent re-traumatization.

They look at the whole person, taking into account any past trauma and resulting coping mechanisms to better understand his or her behaviors before trying to fix any problems.

Instead of asking ‘what is wrong with that child,’ the question becomes, ‘what happened to that child?’

As a funder, our goal is to make sure all young children are physically and emotionally healthy as they enter into kindergarten. The first five years of a person’s life are the most critical – and when children are most vulnerable. The experiences children have before age 5 will shape their health and well-being for the rest of their lives.

By raising awareness about the importance of trauma-informed care, we can make sure that our youngest people grow into the greatest older people they can become.