Youth Zone Corner: Find the ‘why’ of troubling youth behavior
April 13, 2017
Psychological trauma — words that no one likes to hear, especially when these words coincide with some of our community's most vulnerable: children and teenagers. There is no doubt that psychological trauma is a hard topic of discussion, but it is an important one because it drastically affects a large number of our youth.
Trauma is when people have experienced an event that threatens their life, or their physical or emotional well-being. Trauma can also occur when witnessing an event happen to another person. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, more than 60 percent of U.S. youth younger than 17 have been exposed to crime, violence or abuse, either directly or indirectly.
It's important to remember that the array of traumatic experiences affecting our youth can be wide-ranging, and every person reacts to trauma differently. What might seem like a trivial event may have an enormous impact on one individual's sense of self-worth, emotional stability and behaviors. But another adolescent might experience the same event and may not show any signs of stress.
This is a great reminder for the adults in this community to stay curious and empathetic. All people, particularly young people, communicate through their behaviors, especially when they cannot find the words to express themselves. Trauma disguises itself in behaviors like aggression, poor school performance, substance use or abuse, self-harm, isolation, fluctuations in attitude, delinquent behavior, poor self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts or actions. Let me be clear that these behaviors don't automatically indicate stress from a traumatic event, but any change in behavior should be explored because there is likely something at the root of it to be addressed.
Disturbing displays of behavior can definitely be hard to watch and even harder to have patience with. It's a normal reaction to want to stop upsetting behaviors. Our first response is usually to try to stop the behavior with punishment or consequences. This usually comes from a place of fear and frustration. We want our kids to be OK, and we want them to make good choices to live healthy, productive lives. It makes sense.
I challenge the adults in this community to try and take a different approach, though. Let's try not to focus on the behavior itself, but chase the "why." Strive to find out why a young person is acting the way they are. What is their behavior trying to tell us? Once we find out the why, we can help facilitate emotional and physical safety and healthy connection for our youth. This is where we will begin to see a positive behavioral shift.
Discovering the root cause of challenging behaviors or helping a child cope with a traumatic event can begin with a call to YouthZone at 970-945-9300.
Courtney Dunn is a youth advocate and therapist.