Growing the Strength of Children and Youth!

Three weeks ago, I attended a conference sponsored by the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) in Minneapolis, MN. I was both a presenter and a participant at the conference.

When I give a breakout session, I want to ensure that the participants walk away with at least one skill, tool, or strategy they can use with children or youth. Today, I am sharing an activity from my conference session with you.

So often, the systems surrounding us try to fit everyone into a one-size-fits-all model. This deficit-based model looks at people and identifies what they need to improve or be “fixed” within themselves. It leaves children thinking they are not enough, don’t fit in, or can’t be themselves. Children can carry limiting beliefs, like these, into adulthood.

Imagine if children and youth were actually supported in identifying their strengths, exploring their talents, and developing their skills over the years. As the adults surrounding children and youth, we play a crucial and integral role in this process. It’s our responsibility to guide them in this journey. Adults first need to see their strengths. Once adults have explored their strengths, they can better support children and youth in their journey of exploration. Adult mentors who can identify strengths feel valued and integral to the development of the children and youth in their classrooms and programs. They are building positive relationships!

As facilitators, you have the power to acknowledge your strengths and support children and youth in recognizing their own. Here is an activity that you can use to help you recognize your strengths and then support children and youth in recognizing their strengths.

  1. Find a partner with whom you want to learn more about.
  2. You will tell a story in which you felt proud, accomplished, or good about what you did or what happened. Your partner will practice active listening—listening for strength qualities and asking questions. Let your partner know when you both have a story in mind and then you can start.
  3. In your group, select Person A and Person B. Person A; you will have two minutes to tell your story. Person B, you will be listening for strength qualities through what the person did in the story.
  4. Have one person set the timer on his phone for 2 minutes, and Person A can start telling the story.
  5. Person B, tell person A what strengths you heard them say. For ideas of the strengths that showed up in the story, refer to the VIA character strengths word cloud.
  6. Reverse roles and Person B tells a story while Person A practices listening to the story.
  7. Then, take a few minutes to reflect on your story and strengths.

This is a very powerful activity when used in a Circle with youth or adults. It can help create a sense of belonging and acceptance within the group, making everyone feel included and seen as part of a supportive community. This activity has the potential to transform the dynamics of your group, fostering a sense of unity and support. 

You can also use this activity with younger children by having them tell a story of when they were proud or accomplished a challenging task. Then, reflect to them the strengths that you heard in the story.

This is just one of the many tools, strategies and activities that I share with school leaders, educators and youth program directors in my workshop, “Growing the Strengths of Youth: Cultivating Trauma-Informed Resiliency Practices.” Find out more about my live online workshops HERE. I would love to share with you more ways to grow the strength of children and youth in your school or program.

The Hope and Healing of Developmental Trauma

Do you like puzzles? You may be drawn to picture or word puzzles. I like Wordle, and my oldest son likes the 1000-piece picture puzzles. He spreads them out on the table and separates the pieces into categories. Edge pieces, pieces with different color groups, each go into a little pile on the dining room table. He then starts putting them in the right spot and sees the pattern begin. It takes a lot of time and thought to transform a thousand pieces into a beautiful scene.

Developmental or childhood trauma is not just a puzzle; it’s a complex, multi-piece puzzle. However, you don’t have all the pieces, or some of the pieces have edges that are chewed up or broken off. You might not know the picture you are trying to create when putting the pieces together. The puzzle pieces don’t fit quite right, and your picture has blurred images, holes, and spaces. Putting all the pieces together might take a lot of time and thought, so much so that you need to come back to the puzzle multiple times for different lengths of time. You feel frustrated, anxious, and disappointed because the pieces are not fitting together, and you don’t know why.

Developmental trauma is complex, especially when it happens at a young age. Our mind likes to fill in the holes and make meaning of an event, making assumptions. We may remember a glimpse of an image, feeling, or smell; our brain reacts when that happens, creating a belief that we are safe or not safe. If the brain determines that it’s not a safe situation, the nervous system tells the body that it’s not safe. This reaction happens without awareness, creating a fight, flight, or freeze reaction. The memories of not being safe are stored in our bodies at a very young age and can leave lasting effects into adulthood. 

Trauma is not the experience; it’s how your body perceives the experience. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as neglect, abuse, violence, and household instability can be the culprits of developmental trauma. Left alone at too young of an age, lack of food or care by trusted adults can cause profound wounds. The wounds of trauma need healing at each developmental stage.

The trauma response of fight, flight, or freeze manifests in challenging behaviors that the individual may not understand the underlying cause of. When a child or adult enters the stress response, the resulting reaction can leave those around them wondering what is wrong. Recognizing these signs and understanding the underlying trauma is not just crucial; it’s a responsibility to provide the support and care they need. 

However, trauma awareness is not just a tool; it’s a powerful tool for those with developmental trauma and for those who support them. It can clearly explain why they might struggle to form solid relationships, trust others, or feel safe. It can also shed light on the persistent feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, or shame that they experience.

Once developmental trauma is identified, the support and understanding of those around the individual can truly make a difference. Shedding light on behaviors that are not a true reflection of the person but are a result of what happened to them is a crucial step in the healing process.

There are some great resources to dive deeper into Developmental Trauma:

The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk

What Happened to You? By Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey

My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem

These books and many more resources explain developmental trauma in detail and offer hope and the healing that is needed. 

Understanding the impact of trauma, especially on youth and children, can help us better understand behaviors and respond with compassion to support a child. Being informed and recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma in children can support the integration of trauma awareness into policies, procedures, and practices. The services provided by Wildewood Learning can support your school or organization in adopting a new approach to shifting the paradigm in how we serve, learn, and grow.

Be Your Best

“Your best is going to change from moment to moment, it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstances, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”

Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

Have you ever thought about what being your best truly means for you?

The Four Agreements is one of the most eye-opening, influential books I have read. Although the four statements in the book sound easy to follow, they are not. The Four Agreements are:

  1. Be Impeccable with Your Word
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions and
  4. Always Do Your Best.

I want to focus on “Always Do Your Best.” It’s the agreement that helps to integrate the other three. Always Do Your Best is about letting go of judgment and recognizing that life is constantly changing. My “best” in the morning differs from my “best” in the afternoon. Don Miguel describes emotional intelligence and agility in this agreement.

Emotional intelligence, a crucial skill in today’s world, equips us with the tools to navigate life’s challenges with self-awareness and agility. As researcher Susan David explains, emotional agility empowers us to manage complex emotions, make choices aligned with our values, and lead a more authentic and fulfilling life. The benefits of emotional intelligence extend beyond personal well-being, positively influencing our professional success and the work environment.

Burnout and stress in the workplace are at a high level. In 2023, 65% of all employees reported feeling burned out. Healthcare, emergency services, social work, and education professionals have some of the highest burnout rates. I am not surprised. The daily stresses and workload on people in the helping professions doesn’t provide a healthy or safe environment for the youth, children, and clients being served by the organization.

Emotional intelligence skills are not just a nice-to-have; they are a necessity for 21st-century workplaces and the key to creating a healthier, more supportive work environment. Adults need to develop the skills of recognizing and embracing strong emotions, feelings, thoughts, and needs. This will allow employees to gain insights into handling situations beyond their control and develop a mindset that will empower them. We need leaders who model emotional intelligence from a place of compassion and self-awareness, fostering a culture of understanding and support.

Emotionally Intelligent Leaders

When someone leads an organization with emotional intelligence, people recognize the shift in being their best. Being their best doesn’t translate to doing more! Being your best translates to recognizing your emotional and physical state in the moment, creating a pause, and then choosing to serve you and the others around you the best you can in that moment. An emotionally intelligent leader understands themselves and then passes that understanding to their staff. The staff then serves their clients or students, being their best and recognizing that the people they serve are also being their best. We are all just being our best selves with the skills and strategies available to us.

Emotional intelligence training can make a real difference in your organization. A social service agency director wanted to support her staff in growing their emotional intelligence. We worked together to develop training that helped the staff recognize their strengths and the strengths of their co-workers, gain a better understanding of trauma-informed communities, and implement small, doable practices to increase optimism within the organization. These trainings have not only supported the staff in collaboration across departments but also helped them better serve their clients with compassion. The results speak for themselves. 

I am trained in emotional agility through Susan David’s organization. If you are interested in bringing the skills and strategies of emotional agility to your organization, reach out to collaborate with me on bringing these skills to your organization. You can connect with me here:

Co-Regulation on the Road

What is the hardest thing for you to give over control to another person?

Mine is driving. I am an anxious passenger, especially with my young adult children. This anxiety comes from the years of driver training I had to endure with all four of them. I was in the passenger seat without control over the situation, grabbing the armrest or the handle above my head at the abrupt stops and sharp turns taken at too fast of a speed.

A car ride with my daughter usually started with me saying in a low, calm voice, “Slow down.” Each time I said the command, my voice raised several decibels, until by the sixth time I said “slow down,” my voice was louder than the rap music playing on the car speakers. She would get angry and start yelling back, not making the situation safe for either of us.

This past month, my daughter and I took a 1600-mile road trip from Austin, TX (where she attends college) to our home on the northern border of Minnesota. Our mode of transportation was a 2009 Toyota van with 192,000 miles that had not been driven since last June. The first step in our road trip adventure was to get the van moving, which required a new battery. Step two was to fix the air conditioning and the rattling noise emulated from the engine. 

Once those two steps were completed, we were speeding north on I-35. My daughter was taking the first driving shift, and I was anxiously sitting in the passenger seat. I kept my mouth shut as she pushed the van to faster speeds. I knew we had many miles to go before reaching our destination, and I knew that telling her to slow down didn’t make the situation better. 

Then the van started to shutter. She didn’t know what to do, so I calmly took a deep breath and told her to let off the gas pedal and take the next exit. As the van gradually regained its stability, a sense of relief washed over us. I continued to take deep breaths and calmly directed her to pull over at a gas station along the road, where we could finally feel safe and secure.

She felt scared by the van’s shuttering noise and wanted me to drive. I breathed deeply as we discussed the “avoid freeways” route we would take going north. Our route was a blessing as we drove through quiet rural towns and kept the speed under 65 mph to avoid another mishap with the van. That day, we travelled the Texas European route, stopping to eat in Athens (TX) and spending the night in Paris (TX). 

What does our road trip have to do with co-regulation?

Co-regulation occurs when one person lends their calmer nervous system to another person who is not calm. In my case, as my daughter was driving at faster speeds, I could feel my anxiety rising. To regulate my emotions, I practiced deep breathing, chewing gum, and positive self-talk. These techniques helped me stay calm and reassured me that we would be okay. 

When my daughter was anxious due to the freeway traffic and the noisy van, I kept talking to her in a calm, even voice. I may not have felt calm, but I kept calm. I knew from the past that raising my voice didn’t work. Once we pulled over at the gas station, I created a safe space for my daughter to calm down and talk about her anxiety and continuing to drive that day.

This moment supported her nervous system and helped her calm down. The next day, after a restful night in Paris, she was ready to take the next shift driving on the trip. We agreed that keeping the van speed at 65 mph or under would be best and staying on our rural highways. 

I couldn’t always keep my calm outlook as we travelled; however, when I felt myself start to tell her to “slow down” and raise my voice, I caught it sooner. My practice of “being calm” on the trip, despite the challenges, helped her anxiety and ultimately helped us both have a fun trip. This experience was a testament to our growth and resilience as we travelled the road home together.

Reflect on your situations with students, clients, or colleagues:

  1. How can you be the calm in the storm for others? 
  2. What are your strategies to calm your nervous system?
  3. What are the daily practices that you do that you can call upon in stressful situations?