Children develop skills in a predictable sequence that must be followed. For instance, babies do not learn to walk before they crawl. They babble before they speak words. They use parallel play earlier than interactive play. In the same way, they learn to cope with stressors, solve problems, and interact with the world appropriately in an expected progression of developmental milestones. We do not expect a two year old to organize a game by rules. Nor do we anticipate that first graders will arrange a rescue in a natural or man-made disaster. There are skills that they must learn so that they can accomplish these tasks later in life.
A child doesn't just automatically know how to soothe himself when he experience distress. He has to learn how to calm himself when he is upset. The youngster starts to learn self-soothing in his mother's arms when she soothes him when he is upset as an infant. The child that does not have a mother or care giver rock and soothe him when he cries will have difficulty learning to calm himself when upset. Effective mothers, fathers, and caregivers instinctively teach this to their children as they grow up. What about the child that is not taught self-soothing? What about the abused and neglected child and the one exposed to domestic or community violence who has never resolved his trauma? The development of his skill to self-soothe may not develop adequately. He may be "set off" by the slightest thing and escalate, rather than calm down. He may look for upsetting situations that recreate the ones with which he grew up.
Early childhood trauma also negatively affects neurotransmitter regulation and brain development. The amygdala is a brain structure that helps manage emotions. Brain imaging has demonstrated that many children who were maltreated at a young age have amygdalas that are small and under developed. These children can have difficulty managing their emotions for a lifetime. If the damage is severe enough, the child may feel little or no emotions at all.
Brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) prepare the body for freeze, fight or flight in dangerous situations. Many bodily functions slow down or are reduced, including complex thinking in preparation for quick, instinctual action. When the danger is over, neurotransmitters aid a person in returning to a "normal" state called homeostasis. However, a youth that grows up in a chronically chaotic, conflicted, violent, or dangerous home, can have the "set point" the stress activation system set higher so they can act more quickly or always be on alert for danger. These children are on a "hair trigger" when it comes to reacting to anything that might even remotely be seen as dangerous. Many everyday things can be interpreted as dangerous, even when they are not. It is a safety mechanism which meant survival for that child when he was small. It should be recognized as a strength that kept him safe as a child, but needs to be used more sparingly as one grows up by learning new ways to escape danger.
Many youth in the juvenile justice system, need to learn anger management and self soothing skills. Teaching these skills is a long process and to be effectively taught, they must be presented in some fashion every day. Therefore interventions for volatile and violent teens should include skill development in these areas presented in a developmentally appropriate and sequential fashion. One way to teach self-soothing is through relaxation exercises using deep breathing and visualization. It is easily taught and implemented and it is effective. There are lots of books of anger management skill building exercises on the market and they are easy to find. Additionally, it is also important to have a therapist help the child resolve and heal from the trauma he has experienced. The family (or residential staff) becomes the therapeutic partner to learn new ways to manage and communicate within the family and to reinforce skill building every day.
Practice of skills is also extremely important. Children normally learn these skills through practice from the ages of 0 to 18. Therefore , practicing missed skills will have to be part of every day for those whose skill development lags by more than 2 years. The arousal "set point" must be lowered for many children. This is done through therapy and practice of skills. This is an extremely important lesson for organizations providing services for high risk youth in outpatient, inpatient, residential, and other juvenile justice settings. Through the widespread application of these and other evidence based practices, we can effectively reduce the amount of youth distress, acting out, and violence, while increasing the youth's ability to cope with everyday and high level stressors.
Dr. Kathryn Seifert is a psychotherapist with over 30 years experience in mental health, addictions, and criminal justice work. Dr. Seifert has authored the CARE 2 and "How Children Become Violent, Professional Version." The parent version of How Children Become Violent will be released this fall. She speaks nationally on mental health related topics and youth violence. She is an expert witness in the areas of youth and adult violence and sexual offending. www.drkathyseifert.com
Additional Resources on Abuse and Recovery can be found at: