Connecting With Hurting People

There is something that we all have in common; we all came from somewhere. We didn’t just arrive in the present. And because we are all on a journey we all have stories to tell. All of us have had adverse experiences and many of us have lived through trauma. Unfortunately, too many people have stories that include big traumatic events like the loss of everything they have and needing to leave everything behind because of a natural disaster.

If we want to help those who have lived through these very traumatic experiences, we will need to have a basic understanding of trauma. We will need this basic understanding in order to cultivate the empathy necessary for us to become compassionate people. Compassion is defined as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”

But what is empathy? I find that it is often a misunderstood response. All it means is that we choose to identify with another person’s thoughts and feelings. Empathy doesn’t mean that you shared the experience, it means that we choose to connect with someone who is hurting.

Having empathy means that we choose to connect with someone who is hurting. Click To Tweet

A large part of connecting with someone who is hurting is understanding that their loss and pain is real. We need to understand their experiences as best we can so that we can be fully present with them in the moment. Many hurting people need someone to hang in there with them and not give up on them. They need us to focus on them and really see them. Whenever I read that “Jesus saw the crowd” in the gospels, I know that he not only saw them as individuals but that he saw their hurts and their needs well.

If we want to connect with hurting people we have to remain open to their thoughts and feelings. We can’t be dismissive of either of those two things because trauma is personal. Our thoughts and feelings have to be secondary to theirs. In order to help them the best we can, we will need to have some understanding of:

  • What trauma is
  • How it impacts a person
  • How it informs their behavior

Many challenging interactions and behaviors are driven by people’s histories and experiences. Much of what we interpret as controlling or manipulative behaviors are rooted in the individual’s desire to survive. We have to reject “us vs. them” thinking and compassionately embrace a posture of togetherness as we focus on becoming their ally, coach, and advocate.

We have to reject “us vs. them” thinking and compassionately embrace a posture of togetherness. Click To Tweet

What is trauma?

Trauma is either a physical wound or a psychological injury…or both. Most of the people we encounter have experienced both. As a result, they are living in a state of stress and fear which drives the development of survival tactics and negative behaviors. It will serve us well if we remember that behaviors are always an expression of a need. We have to learn to follow the needs be they physical, emotional, or spiritual if we want to help.

We can’t forget that trauma is personal and we cannot dismiss someone’s response to an event that they lived through. Remember, our thoughts and feelings have to be secondary to theirs.

What is the impact of trauma?

There are five things impacted by trauma. They are a person’s:

  • Brain
  • Body
  • Biology
  • Beliefs
  • Behavior

Brain

All of us are familiar with the left and right hemispheres of the brain, but fewer are familiar with the concept of the downstairs and upstairs brain. A simple explanation is that the amygdala (also referred to the “primal brain”) is the first part of our brains to form in utero. It forms at the top of the brainstem and is where all of our emotional and fear responses come from. This is the downstairs brain.

The upstairs brain is where logic and reason live. People who’ve experienced trauma or who are stressed and afraid will access downstairs brain more frequently and more easily than people who have not lived through trauma. When we encounter somebody who is operating from their downstairs brain instead of their upstairs brain, an easy way to help them access their upstairs brain is to ask them questions that start with who, what, where, when, why, how. It forces them back to the logical part of their brain because they cannot answer any question that starts with one of those 7 words with yes or no. They have to think about their answer. If you need information from an emotional, stressed, or traumatized person then helping them move back into their upstairs brain is a valuable skill.

The Handy Model of the Brain

 

Body

Trauma has a pretty significant impact on a body’s ability to process sensory inputs. That is why people who are stressed will sometimes rock back and forth or find push on parasympathetic pressure points like their temples or upper lips. We have to be aware of this so that we will not become distracted or annoyed when someone we are trying to help does these things.

Biology

Trauma has a negative impact on a person’s neurochemistry. All of the good chemicals like dopamine tend to be too low and all of the negative chemicals like cortisol tend to be too high. Being aware that traumatized people will respond in non-typical ways is important to remember.

Beliefs

Traumatic experiences can have a negative impact on a person’s belief system. Trauma will often cause people to believe that they deserve the bad things that happened to them, or that they are not worthy of good things. Working with hurting people requires of us to make them feel like they matter.

Behavior

Not only do traumatic experiences lead negative behaviors, but they hinder a person’s ability to regulate their own behavior. One of the behaviors that frequently manifests is the desire to control all situations. Because part of their traumatic experience is rooted on chaos they do not wish to live in chaos ever again. Giving some control to a traumatized person is an invaluable part of their healing.

How does trauma inform behavior?

Hebbian Theory tells us that “what fires together, wires together.” In simple terms when we experience something neurons fire and wire together to make new neurological pathways. This explains why we can hit a golf ball without thinking about all of the mechanics of our swing, or serve a tennis ball without thinking about what we are doing, or how we can arrive at work in the morning and have no memories of the trip between our home and our office. But, the Hebbian Theory works in the negative too. It explains why traumatized children rarely if ever have a good experience at places like Chuck E Cheese. Their experiences have taught them that when things get loud people (usually me) get hurt.

People who have experienced traumatic events tend to have at least one of these fear responses:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze

Fight

Fight is the easiest response to explain because it is the most obvious. It can be physical or it can be verbal but there is a component of aggression involved. A fight response doesn’t mean you are argumentative or difficult to deal with, it can mean that you are scared.

Flight

Flight another response almost explains itself. It means to leave to run away. One of the things we have to remember is that we can flee a situation emotionally when we are not able to flee the situation physically. This might be the person who can’t give you a straight answer or who cracks a joke at an inappropriate time. That’s usually my response to difficult situations. A flight response doesn’t mean you’re uncooperative, it can be that you are scared.

Freeze

Freeze is the least understood of the fear responses. Have you ever asked someone a question and all you got back was a blank stare? This is a classic freeze response. They are not ignoring you, they are giving you what they can and in that moment what they can give you is nothing. A fear response doesn’t mean you are defiant, it can mean that you’re scared.

I hope that this has been helpful by increasing your understanding of what trauma is, how it impacts a person, and how it informs their behavior. I hope that you feel like you are better equipped to connect with hurting people so you can be an active agent in bringing healing to their lives.

Here are some additional resources if you’d like to learn more about trauma.

Siblings – S3E21

Sibling relationships can always be tenuous, and even more so when it comes to kids from hard places. Chris, Ryan, and Kayla talk about strategies for dealing with these rivalries and the struggles of sibling interaction.

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Music: “Home” by Moses Uvere
Engineered and Produced by Dallas Stacy

Break on Through to the Other Side

Self-care should be a vital part of everyone’s routine, but it is too frequently overlooked. Maybe it’s because it sounds selfish, but you cannot parent your kids well if you are constantly stressed. I was recently invited to speak to a group of Child Protective Services case workers in Houston on the topic of secondary traumatic stress and why self-care is so important. Take a listen below.

2017 Tapestry Conference

The 2017 Tapestry Conference will be held October 20-21 at Irving Bible Church. Come learn from Dr. Curt Thompson as he teaches on the Soul of Shame. Examine how shame keeps us from being engaged in relationships and community. Learn how to retell the stories we believe about ourselves.

Early bird registration for the 2017 Tapestry Conference is NOW OPEN. Register at http://bit.ly/TapCon17 and use TAPCON20EB for 20% off.

5 Books You Must Read This Summer

School’s out for the summer, it’s a holiday weekend, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite books with you. Each one of these has changed the way I look at the world and has impacted how I understand myself and my family. In short, each of these books has changed the way I relate to people and how I parent my kids. If you’re looking for some must-read book this summer, I highly recommend these books.

The Connected Child (Purvis, Cross, Sunshine)

No surprise here. Most of you have probably read this book, but if you’re like me you should read it every summer. The Connected Child introduced us to connected parenting and was the on ramp for us getting involved with Tapestry and Empowered to Connect. The Connected Child opened my eyes to many things by offering me some context in ways that other resources had not. I learned that trust is built through healthy relationships, that I need to connect before I correct, and that I need to see my children with eyes of compassion. I learned that nutrition, hydration, and sleep play an important part in setting my child up for success, I learned that I need to understand and meet their sensory needs. The Connected Child helped me understand that my kids can heal.

The Whole-Brain Child (Siegel, Bryson)

Siegel and Bryson have an ability to translate complex scientific things into words that the rest of us can understand. This is an easy read, especially considering that it is a book about neuroscience. Almost all of us can explain the difference between the left brain and right brain, but fewer can explain the differences between the downstairs brain and upstairs brain; the emotional brain and the logical brain. This book helped me learn about the upstairs brain and downstairs brain. A game changer at our house. In my opinion, there are only three types of people who should read this book; people who have kids, people who work with others who were once kids, and people who were once kids themselves.

Anatomy of the Soul (Thompson)

Anatomy of the Soul is a deep book. I remember the first time I read it…I had to read it twice. I would read a page and then have to re-read it immediately just to understand the content. But, don’t be intimidated this is an amazing book. Curt Thompson weaves science and faith together in a way that helps us practice mindfulness, understand attachment, and make sense of our past. Dan Siegel says that Anatomy of the Soul “offers an illuminating journey through the Bible and the brain that has profoundly practical implications for how to live our lives more fully.”

Daring Greatly (Brown)

Kayla and I listened to Daring Greatly together on a road trip last year, and I highly recommend that you read it with your spouse if you are married. Brene Brown communicates things that we all feel and experience, but find difficult to communicate. This book allowed us to have empathy on a level that we hadn’t previously had for each other. Being vulnerable allows us to experience intimacy in relationships the way we need to. Unfortunately for most of us, we have learned to build walls and how to be defensive instead of being vulnerable. We spend our time avoiding being hurt when we should spend our time being completely available to each other. The key to life-transforming relationships is deciding to be vulnerable with those you love. Daring Greatly is a must read.

The Body Keeps The Score (Van Der Kolk)

This is a foundational book for those who what to understand trauma and how it impacts people. Everyone parenting or working with kids should read this book. Everyone trying to understand their own histories and the impact of those histories should read this book. Understanding that the body remembers what the mind forgets was transformative for me. Watch me telling a story about it HERE. Resolving trauma requires us to understand it and experience it emotionally. The Body Keeps Score sends phrases like “you’ve got to just get past this and move on” and “time heals all wounds” to their rightful place of superficial advice. This book may help you understand why trips to Chuck-e-Cheese don’t go well and the good thing you planned wasn’t.

I hope that you enjoy reading and learning from these books. Each one of them has been transformative for us in understanding our kids and ourselves better.

Parenting is a Leadership Exercise

I was invited to speak at the Florida Foster and Adoptive Parent Association Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida in June. It is always a special privilege to share with families who are in the trenches. I love meeting them, hearing their stories, and being able to share information and experiences that can help them on their journey of hope and healing. I find it easy to be vulnerable with like minded people. I feel like I want to open up to them, honestly, it’s very therapeutic. Perhaps that is what I ultimately like about having the opportunity to speak at events like this one.

But this isn’t about my time in Orlando at the conference. No, this is about my flight home.

The pilot made two announcements before we left the gate; “Our flight is completely full today” and “It’s probably going to be bumpy as we climb out.” I assume that both of those announcements are made on every flight leaving Orlando in the month of June. It is where Mickey Mouse lives after all and afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurrence in central Florida.

Soon after that we left the gate and started our journey home. We spent the first fifteen minutes in the air either turning left or right. At no point did it seem like we were flying in a straight line until we were above the clouds because the pilot was navigating the rough air so that we didn’t have to experience the turbulence. He was cutting a path between the clouds to give us the smoothest ride possible. The climb out of Orlando reminded me that someone who is gifted and skilled can masterfully navigate the skies and avoid the turbulent air.

The first 15 minutes of that flight got me thinking that being a parent is a lot like being a pilot. They are both leadership exercises.

Being a parent is a lot like being a pilot. They are both leadership exercises. Click To Tweet

They are both leadership exercises because:

  1. You have to be equipped to do your job
  2. You are responsible for everyone on your “airplane”
  3. You have to navigate the turbulent air

You have to be equipped to do your job

Our pilot didn’t just climb into the cockpit and fly the plane one day. He is a highly trained and experienced person. He did the work necessary to do his job well. He made the investment in himself (and by extension in all of us sitting behind him) to do his job with the skill required.

But training by itself is not enough. He needed the right kind of training. Pilots need to be trained in the principles of flight. Not just flying a plane.

Parents who are raising children with trauma histories need to be trained in trauma. They need to understand the risk factors that make a hard place. They need to understand how that trauma impacts the brain, body, biology, beliefs, and behavior of their child. They need to understand how their kids respond to fear. Understanding these things is vital to your ability to navigate the skies.

We all accept that athletes need a coach and they need to practice so that they can be at their best. Yet, many parents are reluctant to accept that they need a coach or need to practice to be at their best. I doubt that many (if any) of them would fly on an airplane piloted by someone who is neither trained nor experienced.

You are responsible for everyone on your “airplane”

Pilot or parent, like it or not, you are responsible for everyone on your airplane. That’s what you signed up for. We cannot expect our children to have the tools necessary to self-regulate, take responsibility for their actions, or repair their mistakes. We have to show them how. We have to lead them on their healing journey. We have to model these things for them. Dr. Purvis used to say that unless you taught your child how to do something, you should assume that they don’t know how to do it.

As parents, we know that we are responsible for our families, but that responsibility extends way beyond food, shelter, and clothing. We are responsible for their emotional development and relational healing. Adoptive and foster parents have to heal wounds we didn’t inflict and redeem ground we didn’t lose. This is a foundational reality that we have to embrace about parenting kids with trauma histories. This is how we take responsibility for those behind us on our airplane.

You have to navigate the turbulent air

This means two things. We need to find a way to avoid the turbulent air if we can, and since that isn’t always possible, we need to know how to navigate safely back to smooth air when we find ourselves in turbulent air.

I would suggest that there are two ways to do that. One is to be equipped for the journey by getting that training we need in order to understand our kid’s histories. The second way is to become the world’s leading experts in our children. Since being equipped was addressed earlier I won’t repeat it here, I’ll focus on becoming an expert on who your child is.

We must become the world’s leading experts in our children. Click To Tweet

I can’t overstate this point, we need to know who our kids are in order to be the agents of healing they need us to be. We need to know their triggers, their hurts, and their hangups. We need to know how much sleep they need, how frequently they need nutrition and hydration. We need to know their allergies and their reactions to foods and stressors. We need to know what helps them regulate and what we need to do to re-integrate their upstairs and downstairs brains. We can’t navigate the turbulent air if we don’t know these things.

It’s a matter of trust

The pilot made another announcement about 90 minutes into the flight; “Folks, I’m going to turn the seat belt sign on again as it’s getting bumpy, but don’t worry we’ll do our best to find some smooth air for you.” I had no anxiety when he made that announcement. I had complete faith that he would do what he said because he had proven that he could find the smooth air when we started the journey. He had already demonstrated his ability to navigate the skies. That’s how trust is established, you prove that you are up to the task. You lead those you are responsible for to a better place. You show your kids how when they don’t know how. We can’t always avoid the turbulence, but we can do our best to find the smooth air. We have to, our kids are depending on us.

That’s how trust is established, you prove that you are up to the task. Click To Tweet

Just in case you were wondering, the seat belt sign was turned off 20 minutes later when we found ourselves back in the clean air.

My thanks to Captain Chuck Oltman (pictured below) for the safe, smooth flight home.