From Trauma-Informed to Healing-Centered Engagement: Essential Strategies

Healing-Centered Engagement[HCE] moves beyond trauma-informed approaches by focusing on well-being. Trauma-informed approaches to engagement focuses on treating the symptoms of trauma itself.   It is individual, rather than collective. HCE emphasizes collective well-being framed by the knowledge of the impact of collective trauma.

Being healing-centered means that, in this case, young people are more than what happened to them, seeking to saturate young people with opportunities for healing and well-being. Shifting from trauma-informed care or treatment requires expanding from a treatment-based model, viewing trauma and harm as isolated experiences, to an engagement model which supports collective well-being. For professionals whose work involves engaging with young people:

1>Start by building empathy

This model begins by building empathy with young people who have experienced trauma, which takes time. It is an ongoing process, often characterized by having the feeling of two steps forward and three steps back. Persistence is important. Don’t give up on these young people. Critical to this approach, adults are encouraged to share their story first, taking that leap into being more vulnerable, honest and open to young people. This process creates an empathy exchange.

This empathy exchange also strengthens emotional literacy which allows for youth to discuss the complexity of their own feelings. Fostering empathy allows them to feel safe sharing their feelings and emotions and ultimately restores their sense of well-being because they have the power to name and respond to their emotional states.

.the bully

2>Encourage young people to dream and imagine

A critically important ingredient in this type of engagement is the ability to acknowledge the harm and injury, but not be defined by it. The ability to see beyond the condition, event or situation that caused the trauma originally is a great tool. Research shows that the ability to dream and imagine is an important factor in fostering hopefulness and optimism, both of which contribute to overall well-being (Snyder et al. 2003). Daily survival and ongoing crisis management in young people’s lives can make it difficult for them to see beyond the present.

******The casualty of trauma is not just depression and emotional scares, but also the loss of the ability to dream and imagine another way of living.******

“Dreams matter.” 

 “As long as a man [woman] has a dream, he [she] cannot lose the significance of living”  

Howard Thurman

By creating activities and opportunities for young people to play, re-imagine, design and envision their lives this process strengthens their future goal orientation. These are practices of possibility that encourage young people to envision what they want to become, and who they want to be.

girl holding dandelion flower

3>Build critical reflection and take loving action

Healing and well-being are fundamentally political, not clinical. This means that we have to consider the ways in which the policies and practice and political decisions harm young people. Healing in this context also means that young people develop an analysis of these practices and policies that facilitated the trauma in the first place. Without an analysis of these issues, young people often internalize, and blame themselves for lack of confidence. Critical reflection provides a lens by which to filter, examine, and consider analytical and spiritual responses to trauma.  ‘Spiritual responses’ means the ability to draw upon the power of culture, rituals and faith in order to consistently act from a place of humility, and love. These are not cognitive processes, but rather ethical, moral and emotional aspects of healing centered engagement.

The other key component, is taking loving action, by collectively responding to political decisions and practices that can exacerbate trauma. By taking action, (e.g. school walkouts, organizing peace march, or promoting access to healthy foods) it builds a sense of power and control over their lives. Research has demonstrated that building this sense of power and control among traumatized groups is perhaps one of the most significant features in restoring holistic well-being.

We need to listen and learn from young people who have insights that can advance how we think about trauma and healing. We will have the ability to ask new questions, and formulate new and relevant strategies about how to support young people who experience trauma. Healing centered engagement is just a step toward a more holistic, and humanistic framework to support young people who have been harmed. Such an approach encourages us to think and act more boldly about how to restore young people and create places where they can truly flourish.

girl jeans kid loneliness

Continuing to insist that young people be resilient, see them as victims or worse yet, villains, does nothing to address how environmental factors impact their well-being. Practitioners and educators must expand their approaches to promoting the healthy development and wellness of  youth. Particularly relevant is this approach to engaging young people of color, who face intense challenges on a daily basis.

When we view trauma as a collective experience, we are better positioned to identify the systems intersecting with and impacting their lives. It is the necessary awareness of systems, policies and practices with which young people engage, react and respond,  that must be addressed in engagement practices. A step farther, addressing these factors guides practitioners and all who engage youth to also take action. Empower youth, encouraging and arming them with useful tools and skills that will be relevant to the healing journey. Enlighten them, highlighting people, places and pathways into their possibilities. Validating, affirming and encouraging the restoration of  hope, with an eye on the future, promotes their sense of agency and potential for creating changes necessary for life success. Healing-centered engagement prepares young people to upset the setup.

Healing-centered engagement calls educators to expand their reach beyond the classroom. It calls practitioners to expand their reach outside of their offices. It calls us all to do more than ask young people to be resilient and to cope, and adapt. We are driven to see the potential of young people, hear their cries and help them create their solutions. When we see young people beyond their skin color or income or culture or religion or sexual orientation, but as individuals who each have potential, the possibilities are endless.

We believe in them until they believe in themselves. We believe for them and act as parts of the solutions while demonstrating and modeling to them the ways to advocate for themselves. We tell them what their options are, we give them their histories, and we celebrate their cultural and personal identities. Preparing children for adult life means building academic skills, social-emotional literacy and the capacity for civic engagement.pointing gun

We often look at the choices young people make and wonder whether they consider a better tomorrow. Well, many grow weary from having to cope day after day, struggling to survive the immediate challenges and cannot imagine life beyond the present. No, they don’t see themselves in a different life or a life absent the trauma and toxic stress. That is not their fault. They can’t and shouldn’t be held accountable or blamed for many of their inadvisable choices and actions. Do not allow children and youth to assume and/or internalize blame. They didn’t make the rules. We did. We did so, either purposefully or without any concern for the impact on their development.

Don’t wonder why they use violence and guns for conflict resolution, disengage from school, disrupt classrooms, and present with an angry demeanor. Don’t wonder why they don’t trust us. They tell us why, when we look outside of our comfortable environments. We follow the rules and willingly uphold the policies that lie at the root of the trauma they experience-individually and collectively. They can’t change these rules by themselves-not without our help.

Help them to upset the setup. Guide them toward actions that are organized, mapped and well-thought out, and intentional to create changes. Healing-centered engagement is strictly political, not clinical. Remember that!

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