There’s often a saying that kids in care go from 0 to 100 in a split second, sometimes for what seems like no reason at all. One minute they’re seemingly fine, sitting on the couch and watching TV, then suddenly, the couch is tipped over, everything in sight is being thrown around and then the kid is creating an abstract expressionistic art piece on the kitchen floor, using every single condiment and cleaning product.
Something to understand is that kids who have experienced lots of trauma have nervous systems that are in over-drive all the time, even when they’re sleeping. This means that instead of being at 0 like those of us who can regulate or calm ourselves down, so we can stay at our baseline of 0, or close to it. These kids are often functioning with a baseline that is more likely to be around 80.
This means that smaller triggers have much larger emotional impacts, take for example a comparison between a kid who isn’t traumatised and one who is. Kid A who we will call ‘Jessie’ with no trauma history, is watching the Hulk on the loungeroom TV but it’s 11pm on a school night, his Mum tells him it’s time to switch off and head to bed. Jessie is at a 0 baseline, he hears his mum and feels a bit fed up as he is right in the middle of watching his show. Jessie’s numbers might kick up a notch to 5 or 10 and so he grumbles a bit but that’s the extent of it, Jessie pretty much heads right to bed after back-chatting his mum under his breath.
Kid B who we will call ‘Josh’ is consistently at a baseline of 80, he had a shitty day because got a call from his mum who was in an emotional crisis of her own and it sounded like she had been drinking, meaning that she had broken the sobriety she had been working so hard on to get Josh back home and living with her again. Josh had been heightened from his baseline of 80 up to 90 all day after the phone call with his mum, he had just calmed down to a point where he could sit down on the couch and watch his movie, without feeling that constant, almost painful rush of adrenaline, which made it impossible to sit down and concentrate for more than a few minutes.
It was 11pm, the resi unit rules stated that the TV had to be switched off at 10pm on a weeknight but the worker who was on shift that night had turned a blind eye to the extra hour because she knew Josh was in the middle of his movie and didn’t have anything on in the following morning. At 11pm the worker made her way into the loungeroom to check in with Josh how long the movie had left to finish because it was 11pm. Josh didn’t hear that the worker was just checking in as to how long the movie had to go, he was already at 90, all he could hear was the worker imply that he had to go to bed, immediately breaking the concentration on the TV that had been able to get his mind off his day for a little while.
Josh lost it, all his cylinders started firing and he was immediately at 100, he felt like he had nothing left to lose. His mum had given up trying to get him back, so he was stuck in that shit hole resi-unit for good now. Josh throws the entire couch at the wall and then starts punching at the wall until he has made a hole through both sides of it and he can feel the cool night air pour in which calms him slightly. The worker must comply with workplace policy and call the police, leading to Josh being charged with property damage and beginning a link into the juvenile justice system.
Josh didn’t go from 0 to 100, he already had a baseline of 80 and had been pushed up to 90 due to the phone call from his mum earlier that day. From the workers point of view, he had been a little more restless and irritable that day but that was somewhat usual for him. It would have taken someone who really understood the effects of trauma to spot the warning signs that Josh was escalating, because Josh didn’t show much emotion usually, he had been taught to keep it all in.
Each kid in care has a different baseline with different things that will trigger them. Some kids will be triggered into anger, some into dissociative almost catatonic like states, some use substances, some run away and some will cycle through a few of these responses. Each kid is different and needs to be approached differently. It is so important that youth workers start to inform themselves about the effects of trauma, that way, when kids do become triggered, the workers may have a really valuable chance to work with the kid to help them understand what they are feeling in that moment, and how they can manage those feelings.