By the time Kayla came to ReadyKids, shortly after her fourth birthday, she had lived in three different foster homes, experienced chronic homelessness, substance abuse exposure, neglect and suspected sexual abuse.
At ReadyKids, Kayla met weekly with a trained trauma to heal from her past.
For Kayla, and the 1,273 kids in the ReadyKids service area like her who experienced abuse or neglect last year, the effects of trauma on their developing brains can have lifelong consequences.
The ReadyKids InsideOut program is the only program providing counseling for children who have experienced physical, sexual, emotional abuse, and neglect in the Charlottesville area at no charge to the victims’ families.
“We are fortunate to provide free long term counseling,” said Ashley Wood, Senior Trauma Counselor for InsideOut. “We aren’t limited by Medicaid.”
There is no “magic wand” to heal children from trauma. Likewise, recovering from trauma isn’t a “one size fits all” treatment.
Much like a doctor studies a patient’s symptoms to narrow down a specific diagnosis and treatment, the InsideOut counselors hone their assessment skills to know what interventions will work for each child on their caseload. But they don’t do it through asking questions or waiting for the child to tell them what happened, they use play.
“Play is a child’s primary way of communicating,” said Shannon Noe, Program Manager for Youth Counseling. “By utilizing play therapy techniques, children are able to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a way that is natural and more comfortable … play allows them to have a tool to communicate without having to talk about it verbally. Healing happens in these moments!”
Here are a few activities our counselors use to get a glimpse into a traumatized child’s inner life and begin healing.
Reading “A Terrible Thing Happened”
This story tells about Sherman, a raccoon who saw something awful happen and he can’t forget it, no matter how hard he tries. The book describes many of the behaviors and feelings children experience after traumatic events, like stomachaches or sleeplessness. But also, “problem” behaviors like, “Sherman had to play more, run faster, and sing louder in order to forget the terrible thing he saw.” Sherman goes to see Ms. Maple at school. Ms. Maple listens. She helps Sherman understand what happened was not his fault.
After reading the book, InsideOut counselors will use a raccoon puppet who looks like Sherman to talk to a child.
“Sometimes I have kids who will only talk to Sherman, not to me,” said Wood.
The book ends by showing Sherman’s progress and reassuring children. “Nothing can change the terrible thing that Sherman saw, but now he does not feel so mean. He is not so scared or worried. His stomach does not hurt as much. And the bad dreams hardly ever happen … I think you should know that.”
Putting feelings onto paper
You may have heard that right-brained people are creative, while left brained-people are logical. These insights come from brain science, a burgeoning field offering us more insight on how traumatic events damage a child’s brain development. Thanks to brain scientists, counselors now know that a child who has experienced trauma responds better to right brain therapies, therapies that use creativity and imagination – like art therapy or play therapy.
One form of art therapy many ReadyKids InsideOut counselors use to begin a session is a “Color Your Feelings” activity such as this one. The child’s coloring is an assessment tool, and as a way to track progress through therapy.
“The color your feelings activity is a great way to track progress over time,” said Noe. “It also provides us with a way to normalize having multiple feelings at any given time and to affirm a child who is willing to express emotions that are harder to contain.”
Imagining the future
Trauma and abuse can create a sense of hopelessness and unworthiness in children. Another activity ReadyKids InsideOut counselors do is give kids art materials and ask them to draw “A Bridge to the Future.” In the drawing they must include what they hope for, what might be in their way, and what tools they will need to get there.
“In this picture, the shark is the girl’s trauma, threatening to keep her from the island of her hopes and dreams,” said Niti Patel, InsideOut Trauma Counselor. “Her tools were her paddle, and if you look closely you’ll see that she put a number one on the boat, indicating that she will always put herself first. She said the big sun showed that she had a lot of hope.”
When a child imagines itself as a force of hope, capable of changing his or her future, this increases resilience. Building up resilience to help children overcome difficulties is the main goal of InsideOut.
Through grants and donations from generous donors like you, the ReadyKids InsideOut program has been able to reach more kids each year by adding more counselors to our staff. But the work of healing trauma is deliberate and slow, and requires a genuine relationship. Because of this, our waitlist is growing.
Help us to reach each child who needs us. Please consider a donation to ReadyKids to keep the work going. We can’t do it without you!