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PlayfulnessWhen we play with another we experience enjoyment. The mirror neurons in our brains help us experience ourselves the way that other people see us, so when an adult enjoys a child, the child feels enjoyable. For children who have been hurt, this is a new experience, as abuse and neglect inherently cause shame and their experience of themselves is typically one of being unlovable, a nuisance, disgusting, and unwanted. It’s really hard to play with someone you don’t like, so when we can be playful with hurt children, we are communicating that they are enjoyable and likeable. Being playful with hurt children also com- municates that you are confident and hopeful that their lives will improve. Play is also a crucial component of learning how to get along with others. Without play in their lives, hurt children are further isolated from others and from learning opportunities. Learning how to play is a really important step toward healing. With your children or students, think of ways to gently tease, joke, and delight in them.
AcceptanceAcceptance is of the child’s underlying emotional experience that leads to behavior. Acceptance makes us feel safe. It communicates that our support is unconditional and that the behavior is less important than the relationship. For children with developmental trauma, it can be difficult to accept their underlying deep sense of self-loathing, rage, or despair. As parents or teachers, we like to argue with, reassure, minimize, or distract children from painful feelings. We need to challenge ourselves to accept all parts and all expe- riences of our students so that they can begin to integrate those parts themselves and begin to heal. If we can accept the child underneath the behavior, then their self-acceptance will increase and it will help them be ready to address their behavior.
CuriosityHelps us stay in our understanding stance and explore what might be causing the challenging behavior. Children with developmental trauma don’t typically have any idea why they do what they do or why adults to what they do. The story they make up is usually that they are bad kids or adults are mean. Wondering out loud invites the child to be more reflective, bridging the right and left hemispheres, and helps organize their experiences so that they can be less confusing. When we really want to understand a child, intersubjectively, we communicate that the child is worth understanding. Use “I wonder” liberally. “I wonder how come . . . ? Children with trauma won’t have an answer to which you can delightedly stat “Lets figure it out!” Be sure your curiosity is also non-judgmental and it communicates interest in the child you are discovering. When you are curious about all aspects of a child’s experience they will experience themselves as interesting – the opposite to their early experiences of abuse and neglect.
EmpathyHelps us feel “felt.” It is not sympathy, pity, or reassurance. It can communicate that we understand and are “with” the student. When we feel others are with us in our experience we can do more and feel braver or stronger. We can express empathy for any emotional experience, not just sadness. We communicate our empathy verbally and nonverbally through our tone, intensity and rhythm of our voice, our soft gaze and open body posture, and, when safe, touch. Having empathy for a child’s experience does not mean that there will be an absence of consequence or limits. Consequences and limits can be delivered with empathy. “It’s so hard right now.” . . . “I’m so sorry this is tricky.” . . . “Oh boy, you really wished you could have done what you wanted in the way you wanted.” “It’s so hard when adults tell you what to do” “It’s not ok to be mean to others. I wonder how we might help you find another way to express your anger?”
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