BENNINGTON >> Over 100 area mental health professionals and early childhood educators visited the Bennington Center for the Arts on Friday for a workshop entitled, "Creating Trauma Informed Communities."
The workshop was presented by Children's Integrative Services, part of the Vermont Department of Children and Families' Child Developmental Division. Linda Dean-Farrar, executive director of the Sunrise Family Resource Center, thanked Denise Main, Sunrise's family services director and Lorna Mattern, United Counseling Service's director of youth and family services, who she described as "doing the yeoman's share of the work," in setting up the event. CIS-affiliated agencies that were part of setting up the workshop include the Sunrise Family Resource Center, Visiting Nurses Association, United Counseling Service, Early Intervention, and Specialized Childcare Services. Building Bright Futures also provided financial support. Lunch was provided by Bringing You Vermont.
The workshop, which lasted from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., was led by Dr. Joelle van Lent, a licensed psychologist with over 15 years of experience working with children, families, and child serving agencies. "Stress is not intrinsically a bad thing," she said at the start of her presentation, "Stress actually fosters strength and resilience and is part of what helps you grow." She said that there were three types of stress: Positive stress, which is moderate, brief, and generally a normal part of life, such as entering a new classroom; Tolerable stress, which describes events with the potential to alter the developing brain negatively, but which occur infrequently and give the brain time to recover, such as the death of a loved one; and Toxic stress, which is strong, frequent, and prolonged stress, such as chronic neglect or abuse.
She pointed out that toxic stress can dramatically affect children's mental development, but pointed out that the people in the room had the power to make a difference. "All of you have the capacity to take what would be toxic stress and bump it up to tolerable stress," she said. She encouraged those who work with children to consistently tell the truth, and to work with the children to address their needs, even if it means taking steps back and helping them re-build themselves socially and emotionally to recover from a trauma in their pasts. "We can't control the realities of their lives," she said, "but we can sit in the muck with them and help them find a way out."
In the second part of her lecture, van Lent discussed the specifics of how brains develop, and the importance of predictability and stability in a child's life during those years. She said that children who lack other-regulation in their home lives, from parents or otherwise, can be very slow to develop self-regulation. Lacking a primary caregiver that can provide this regulation, she said, can also cause children to have difficulties developing what is known as object constancy, or the ability to call up an internal representation of their guiding moral figures when they are not there, which helps with impulse control and problem solving. This puts them at a strong disadvantage compared to children who have these skills, when beginning their educations.
She said that by know means do parents have to be perfect, they simply have to be "good enough." She said that even non-verbal children can suffer traumas from neglect or abuse that hinder their development. "You can learn, even in the first weeks of life, that if you cry, and a life-threatening response is given, then you fall silent," she said. Life-threatening responses, from the baby's point of view, she said, can include a caregiver yelling at the child. If a baby learns early in life, as a survival mechanism, not to cry when they have a need that has to be addressed can lead to situations such as severe diaper rash when they soil their diaper and can't communicate it.
The main idea of the workshop was the importance of community knowledge about trauma. The more aware of the realities of trauma a community is, the more able they will be to recognize the signs and prevent it from happening, and to offer help and support to those children who have already experienced it. Van Lent recalled her experiences growing up in rural New York, where families had to look out for each other, as authorities would often be too far away to respond quickly to an emergency. "Vermont is our community," she said, "and these are our children, our families, our problems. We can't wait for some outside person to come in and solve our problems... One family's barn fire is everyone's barn fire."