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.