This post was written by Kirsty Ruggles. Kirsty is the Lead Training Manager for The Knowledge Center at Chaddock. Kirsty works remotely from her home in Missouri. In her spare time Kirsty loves to spend time with family, hike with her two dogs and take photographs of nature. She has worked in the Trauma and Attachment field for over 10 years.
The first memory I have of working with a child who had experienced trauma and disrupted attachment relationships was with a young man on my first day of working in his classroom as a teaching assistant (or para-professional, as it’s known in the USA). I distinctly remember him becoming upset and me placing myself away from him at the far end of the classroom. The reason for my positioning was because at that point in my career I did not have the knowledge or skills to support him during this time.
However, he came over to me and kicked me hard, right in my shin.
It would have been easy in that moment to say “Who do you think you are?! You can’t kick me and get away with it!”
My second memory, funnily enough, with the same young man, is of him leaving the classroom, me following, trying to engage him and make sure he was safe. He proceeded to yell a string of cuss words at me and many other gestures. I was quickly instructed by another member of staff to go back into the classroom, “You’re triggering him”. It would have been easy in that moment to say “What did I do? I’m just doing my job!”
These two experiences became the foundation of all I do and how I “be” with others, whether it’s a baby, toddler, child, youth or adult. Whether I know their story, or if I know nothing about them at all. You see, from these experiences, and many, many others, with the children and young people I have had the opportunity (yes, opportunity) to work with, I have discovered the most powerful piece of knowledge; it begins with me, but it’s not about me.
My time at Chaddock, which began in 2014, has blessed me with many more occasions to apply this wisdom with the children, families and indeed all others, that I work with. From outpatient therapy, to working within our special education school, to now working for our Knowledge Center as a Trauma-Informed, Attachment-Based trainer, I have found a way to weave this into my everyday work.
I have come to learn and truly internalize the fact that during every interaction with another person you have the ability to control you. Will you react or will you respond? Will you seek to understand or only seek to be heard? Will you learn or will you just teach? Will you contribute to chaos or will you create calm? And most importantly, do you have enough self-awareness to know which route you are choosing in the moment and enough vulnerability to evaluate that choice after?
When a child or young person is discouraged or dysregulated, they are often working from their back brain – in fact, this is true for everyone, even those who have not experienced trauma. However, for many of the children we serve at Chaddock, thier baseline stress response system has been changed due to ongoing trauma experiences and they will often “live” in their back brain. The vital question is, how often do you find yourself joining them?
When our stress response system is triggered, we either fight, flight, freeze, or fawn;
When we engage in a power struggle with children, we are fighting.
When we hand our children off to someone else, we are in flight.
When we say “I have no idea what to do”, we are freezing.
When we give in, just to make life easier, we are fawning.
None of these options are helpful to anyone, especially not our children, who have so often been met with these responses before. So where do we begin?
It begins with me.
In the moment, it begins with me taking a breath, checking myself, and recognizing if I am also in back brain, or about to be. It begins with me choosing to emotionally partner with this child, instead of allowing my back brain to rule. It begins with me dropping my agenda (not my expectations – did you know that those are two different things?), focusing on the needs of the child and not taking it personally.
It’s not about me.
It begins with me understanding that I may or may not be the right person for this child. It begins with me truly accepting that this is not a personal attack but a child trying hard to protect the inner belief system they have developed (often the belief that they are a bad kid and not worthy of love). It begins with me being OK with it not being about me.
During those early experiences, I could have so easily disregarded the role that I played in those interactions; it would have been simple to just blame the child, he was the one “acting out” after all. Instead, I reflected on what he needed from me, what I gave him and how my actions and words affected him. I came to understand that I have the power to stop the escalation of a situation, beginning with myself.
I could have taken that kick to the shin personally, directed that anger towards him and decided to never return, giving up on him like most others had probably done. Instead, I reflected that he was a child, he was protecting himself from something (most likely me, a new adult in his world, who most definitely could not be trusted) and chose to give him a different response, one that said “I see you, I hear you, and I will be here, with you, because this isn’t about me.”
It begins with me, but it isn’t about me.
The process of becoming self-aware is not an easy one. It takes vulnerability, humility and grace. It also takes practice and patience and a lot of failed attempts. Self-awareness is fundamental when working with children who have experienced trauma and disruptions in their attachment relationships because both typically involve adults who were supposed to care for and love them. This means that our children struggle to trust and respect adults and believe that they themselves are not worthy of care or love. It is paramount then that we as the adults are aware of our own reactions, behaviors, and triggers so that we do not end up validating the beliefs that our children hold.
At Chaddock we grow our ability to be self-aware through reflective practice, observation and video supervision and continuous check-ins with each other throughout our daily lives. We are a family of staff that rumble with vulnerability consistently to ensure that we are the best people for the children and families we serve.