Helping understand and identify triggers is crucial in working with children, especially children who have experienced trauma.
Triggers can be anything that elicits an emotional or behavioral response in children. So when little Johnny always seems to pick fights with you when you wear green, there may be an underlying reason for that, which Johnny is likely also not fully aware of consciously.
Our brain is a beautiful thing and a big part of its function is to help us survive and keep us safe. Let’s use our fictitious Johnny example again. Let’s say Johnny was abused by a family member in the past who happened to always be wearing a green jersey because that was the intramural team’s uniform on Wednesday nights which was when this individual would babysit Johnny. Wednesday’s may also be a trigger for Johnny as well a numerous other possible triggers. The brain links the traumatic event to other things like green and Wednesday’s in an effort to protect Johnny from future harm. So when Johnny is pacing and argumentative, his brain may be responding to triggers and causing increased adrenaline and cortisol preparing for fight or flight. When we can understand triggers and help children identify them and possible reasons for them, we can better support them in handling the triggers and recognizing them when they occur. The brain is a beautiful thing and making new connections in the brain is always possible. Making these new positive connections is a huge part of what we do as therapists, counsellors, social workers, parents, foster parents, teachers, and so many other crucial roles we serve with children.
One activity I do to help children recognize triggers is to use story stones. My story stones have numerous pictures such as houses, animals, people, vehicles, etc. I often will place the stones in front of a child and encourage him or her to place the stones on the feeling that is associated for them. Children will place their own meaning on the stones with no help from you. If a child asks, “What is this picture?” simply reflect, “Hmm I wonder what that is…” Usually the child will then exclaim something like, “Oh! It’s my foster mom’s necklace!” I will simply validate the statement and which feeling they place the stone on. “I put it on sad because she wears it to church and I’m supposed to see my birth mom later that day but she hasn’t been coming to visits like she’s supposed to.”
You would be very surprised the associations that can be identified and processed in this activity. This gives you opportunity to respond supportively and to explore and validate feelings. It also can lead way for problem solving and preparing.
“Next time you see someone wearing a jersey that looks like that what could you do? What could you tell yourself? Because your brain might be saying, ‘Danger! I remember that! That must be him again!’ But we both know it can’t be him because he is in jail now”
Child: “I know! I take deep breaths and I can tell myself, ‘Look at that person’s face, that isn’t him! You are safe now and he is jail!'”
Of course this is hypothetical example and children will often need more modeling, prompting, supporting, and examples to come up with such plans to handle triggers.
This activity also helps identify positive reminders for children and things that help them feel safe and happy. These can then be further used in guided imagery and other coping skills to support the child.
Remember…the brain is a beautiful thing. New connections and healing is possible and what YOU do with children matters and facilitates this! Happy healing everyone!