Recently a residential team had been struggling with a Young Person with complex trauma. The behaviours of this young person had significantly increased due to some recent losses the Young Person had experienced. The behaviours exhibited by the young person included extreme self injurious behaviours. While trying to support the young person during this time it became clear that the staffing team were experiencing a parallel process. The behaviours displayed by this young person were a response to their perception of rejection and every negative response they received reinforced their world view that they were unloved and unlovable. As the behaviours or the Young person escalated the emotional responses of the team became heightened and reactive. The Young Person attempted to pull in staff members, other young people and their family in an attempt to connect but this also created ongoing traumatic re-enactments. As each of these people responded with the emotional parts of their brains and not the cognitive parts of their brains they became a part of the trauma story repeated over and over for this young person when they also inevitably became overwhelmed by the Young Person’s escalating need for connection.
When we as a team were able to stop and talk this through we realised that we had an opportunity as a community to support this Young Person to rescript this world view and to help them create a different story. This would mean that first we needed to address our own part in creating a traumatic re-enactment with the Young Person but also with each other. This meant having some challenging conversations with each other about why we had said and done certain things or why specific decisions had been made in relation to the treatment of this Young Person. We accepted that our community needed to include a number of therapeutic supports for the Young Person and for the team and these strategies were put in place as part of an overall treatment plan.
We realised that while we had been aware of the trauma history for this Young Person that we had not articulated this within our team meetings or with the Young Person themselves. Instead we had focused on describing the behaviours we had observed and the impact this had been having on both the Young Person and the team. We connected these behaviours back to the trauma history for this Young Person and began to articulate and understand the origins and meaning of these behaviours for the Young Person. This also allowed us to remember to have these conversations with the Young Person themselves and to articulate to them that we did understand the source of this trauma for them and why they were hurting themselves and that our support remained a stable and unchanging part of working with this Young Person. We were able to reassure the Young Person that this support would continue even when it was really hard for them and for us.
Sometimes we need to be challenged to grow and change and to be aware of our own part in re-enactment triangles and to stay out of them, seek support to address our own issues through supervision or to not do this work. Our role is to help and support and work with Young People to heal from trauma and to restore hope and a positive sense of future and if our behaviours and actions instead reinforce the Young Person’s experience of trauma or means Young People end up stuck then we need to stop what we are doing and find another way to do this work.
Of course this is easier said than done. In this particular situation the team was able to return the Young Person to the program successfully and re-establish relationships that had broken down during this time. One staff member in the team was able to recognise that the exposure to trauma had raised issues for them that were not resolvable within the current work environment and voluntarily chose to find other employment. While we had hoped for a reduction in the behaviours exhibited by the Young Person we had expected that the behaviours would remain for some time to come particularly as we were aware that they would have a number of challenging life events to move through including transition to independence. What we have seen instead has been an almost complete cessation of all self injurious behaviours. In rescripting the world view for this young person I think the added benefit has been that the team now have a clear example of how, when we are able to work through the Sanctuary concept of SELF (Safety, Emotion Management, Loss and Future) that we can achieve positive outcomes. This may mean that when a similarly difficult situation presents itself that we will have this as part of the team’s history and they will have the knowledge of what they can achieve together with our Young People.