How To Respond To Trauma-Based Behavior

By Laura Heister

Recently, I had the privilege to hear from one of my favorite speakers, Dr. Donna Gardner, at a training sponsored by the Indiana Youth Institute called Trauma: Healing the Wounds of our Youth. I came away with more knowledge regarding trauma as well as tangible resources that I can start using today in the youth that we serve at Youth Resources and specifically through my program, Vanderburgh County Teen Court.

What is trauma? Trauma is not the event but instead the reaction to the event. Dr. Gardner’s working definition is that trauma is “the emotional, psychological, and/or physiological reaction to an adverse occurrence/event.”

Dr. Gardener shared with us the 4 Levels of Trauma-Based Reactions, which are critical for youth workers and family members to understand. The goal is not to be at any level on the scale. If a young person is not able calm down and deescalate, the levels will progress. Dr. Gardner emphasized the need to be aware of both verbal and nonverbal cues.

Level 1 is Anxious Behavior. Cues include changes in the rate or speech (rapid or slow speech), excessive body movement, body movement that does not fit the situation or circumstance, or movement that is uncharacteristic of the individual. Your role is to respond with care and concern: “This seems very important to you. Would you tell me more?” The goal is to deescalate the young person so they are no longer anxious by allowing them the opportunity to discuss the issue.

If the anxiety is not alleviated, the young person will continue to Level 2, which is Defensive Behavior and includes challenging, confronting, and questioning with persistence. Your role is to give a clear directive that is neutral. If you are the adult engaging with the young person or if you have a close relationship with the young person, you may not be able to give a neutral directive. It’s best to have a plan so that another adult can give a clear directive that is neutral.

If this fails to work, Level 3 is Acting Out. This behavior is aggressive. Your role is to create safety for the youth, anyone else who is present, and for yourself. Do not engage, respond or give consequences at this time; if you say anything, limit it to something like “My job is to keep you safe.”

Only after everyone is safe and calm should you proceed to Level 4, which is Restore and Process. Restorative consequences are given in this stage. Restorative justice could also be an appropriate fit, which is what we offer through Vanderburgh County Teen Court. As you process the situation, practice empathy. Be quick to listen as you explore the situation with the young person. You might become aware that this young person needs the help of a licensed therapist. If this is the case, help them to find a professional who can talk further with this young person.

No matter what your career, qualifications, or lack of qualifications, your role as an adult is vital in every interaction and situation with youth, but especially with youth who experience trauma.

Laura Heister is the Vanderburgh County Teen Court Program Coordinator at Youth Resources.