The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports children and youth involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems are more likely to have been previously exposed to potentially traumatic events. Often law enforcement officers are the first people to interact with children prior to their involvement in either of these systems. Whether they are part of an investigation as a suspect, victim or witness, officers have the ability to utilize trauma-informed policing techniques and have the potential to make a huge impact on a child’s ability to handle and cope with negative life experiences.
Neurology of Trauma
Children with a trauma history often react to their environment responding from the limbic system, specifically the amygdala, rather than the higher reasoning centers housed in the neo-cortex, specifically in the pre-frontal lobes. The pre-frontal lobes controls executive functions such as planning, thoughtful consideration, cause and effect and delaying gratification. The amygdala is the fear center of the brain and is activated by intense stressors and can be chronically activated by significant traumatic experience. Children with trauma perceive their environment differently than those without trauma; therefore, how law enforcement professionals interact with them can induce negative flight, fight or freeze behaviors. Also, having an understanding of how what section of the brain a child might be reacting from allows us to practice approaches that promote change in current behaviors, as well as, future responses to situations the child might encounter.
When interacting with children who have trauma, three “R”s can help ease the child’s reactive behavior and make the situation more positive both for the child and for the officer.
Evidence-based research indicates relaxation is a powerful intervention especially with those who have a trauma history. Relaxation allows an individual to move from limbic to neo-cortical thought patterns and can have an immediate calming influence on behaviors and emotions. Assisting a child relax can be easy utilizing methods such as counting to 10, taking several deep breaths and other similar approaches.
Once a level of relaxation has been achieved in the child, his or her brain is more available to use higher reasoning centers. Although this step generally requires coaching outside the current situation, we can draw on this method while interacting with a child during law enforcement situations. On scene, an officer can help the child think about the situation, including what has happened, what choices the child has for potential responses and what alternatives might produce better outcomes than others. Essentially, the adult is helping the child use thoughtful consideration, better understand cause and effect and the results of the decisions that child might be making. Rethinking is at the heart of negotiation techniques. Even if a situation doesn’t require a trained police negotiator, officers can use these skills to help a child learn to utilize higher reasoning skills and come up with personal, self-reflective solutions.
The key to regaining self-regulation which is often lacking in children with trauma is the ability to respond rather than react. Once a child begins to use higher order thinking he or she can see alternatives to negative reactive behavior. They now have the cognitive ability to respond to their situation in a way that will result in a positive outcome. As law enforcement professionals, we can assist them in coxing out a response based in higher reasoning rather than a reactive response based in their trauma experience.
A fourth “R” which is utilized in trauma-focused therapy can also assist in police work due to the number of times officers interact with the same individual-Repetition. Each time an officer responds to the same child he or she has the opportunity to repeat and reinforce the three “R”s. This helps develop new patterns of behavior and creates new pathways re-structuring the brain. Each interaction an officer has with a child has the potential to increase his or her personal success by optimizing their ability to utilize executive functions rather than reactive thought patterns.
When interacting with traumatized children, it is important to remember not to overly rely on verbal communication. According to Jasper Mountain, an Oregon agency that has worked with traumatized children for over three decades, verbal communication with traumatized children has several limitations including the “child’s limited receptive language skills, difficulty understanding the verbal communication of adults due to neurological stress reactions, and many other limitations such as the difficulty some children have understanding the real meaning of verbal messages or hearing all, and not just some, of what is said. It is important with young children not to overly rely on words.”
Sending and receiving wordless cues between people especially visual cues is how roughly 75% of interactions occur. Nonverbal cues include facial expressions, posture, tone, cadence, volume and gestures. From the beginning of an officer’s career, he or she is taught how to use these cues successfully on the street. “Children are particularly sensitive to nonverbal messages, as they have learned to read nonverbal messages from their caretakers long before they could understand verbal messages.” Previous abuse and trauma, makes certain children hypersensitive to nonverbal messages. They will often miss what is being said verbally. Keep a neutral, non-threatening stance when appropriate. Just like when utilizing non-verbal communication to control a scene, officers have the ability to encourage a successful conclusion to an interaction involving a child with a trauma history.
Many different aspects of police work allow officers to interact with children in a non law-enforcement capacity. School Resource Officers, as well as, those who focus on a community-based policing model have the ability to assist children and young adults in their community. Teaching and encouraging children to cope with difficult situations has the potential to prevent trauma and build resiliency. All children, but especially those that live in families or in neighborhoods that interact with police on a regular basis experience stressful life situations and events. According to Dr. Dave Ziegler, Ph.D., Jasper Mountain Executive Director and author of Neurological Reparative Therapy: A Roadmap to Healing, Resiliency and Well-Being, children can be taught to be COPERS. Officers can learn and adapt these techniques to teach the children they interact with.
Connections and attachment with others-Help children expand and mature in their social interactions with healthy adult role models. Be that role model. Respectful treatment models the respectful treatment we expect from the child.
Optimism and positive outlook-Things might seem really grim to a child currently due to choices the adults or peers around them are making. Encourage them to continue making good choices for themselves and remind them when we expect good things to happen there is a better chance they will.
Play and recreation-The goal of playing, for adults as well as children, is to rebuild our bodies, energy level and enthusiasm. Be involved with children actively.
Exercise and aerobic activity-Exercise is focused play. Participate in or help create a local branch of organizations, such as the National Police Athletic League (PAL).
Resiliency and persistence-Bad things happen to everyone. How we respond to the negative things in our life color our perceptions. Encourage children to persist despite the bad things. Show them how challenges can strengthen them.
Stress reduction-Encourage and teach stress reduction techniques including relaxation. Guide them to research available techniques, experiment with them and use those that are most helpful to them personally.
Policing is inherently trauma-based work. Officers routinely deal with not only traumatic situations, but the aftermath of these situations. When interacting with children, officers have the ability to influence way beyond the current situation. By reinforcing that all children have dignity and rights that should not be violated and showing control and stability, officers can encourage children to move beyond trauma. When officers have an understanding of how trauma affects behavior, we can play a more positive and healing role in the lives of children. Officers make a difference every day and by utilizing trauma-informed policing, we can have an even greater impact.