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Collaborative Problem Solving as Trauma-Informed Care

The Impact of Trauma on Brain Development and What to Do About it

There is renewed interest in the effects of chronic, overwhelming stress and trauma on children’s development. Trauma-informed care is emphasized more than ever. Yet, parents, educators, clinicians, mental health workers and law enforcement alike still struggle to understand the impacts of trauma on brain development in a concrete and tangible way. Perhaps even more so, adults trying to help these children and adolescents long for user friendly and accessible strategies that operationalize what brain science tells us will be helpful to facilitate development arrested as a result of complex developmental trauma.

Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) is a practical, evidence-based process that all adults can follow in any setting to ensure trauma-informed intervention. CPS has been used effectively across systems to provide concrete strategies that operationalize fundamental principles of neurodevelopment.

Specifically, CPS first helps adults understand how children exposed to chronic overwhelming stress and trauma do not lack the will to behave well, they lack the skills to behave well. CPS helps adults understand how toxic stress and trauma arrests brain development by identifying the specific skills they children lack in areas like flexibility, frustration tolerance and problem solving. Then CPS provides clear guideposts for adults to use in order to engage children in problem solving discussions which build helping relationships with the children while fostering a relational process that develops flexibility, problem solving, and emotion regulation skills. All the while, CPS avoids the use of power an control which is re-traumatizing and instead aims to help reduce the power differential which traumatized children find so dysregulating.

The latest neuroscience research has shown that facilitating brain change is not about erasing old associations in the brain resulting from trauma, but about creating new associations in the brain – in other words, new neural pathways. Exposing children repeatedly to small, digestible doses of novel experiences with a different, more positive emotional quality to them creates these pathways. The challenge is that the brain processes information from the bottom up. So with traumatized children, one must help regulate them at the level of the brainstem before you can engage their limbic system to relate to them and finally then teach them the kind of higher order problem-solving skills that are located at the level of the prefrontal cortex or top of the brain. The CPS process respects this awareness of the sequence of engagement at the level of the brain by recruiting the brainstem first, then the mid-brain and finally the cortex. It begins by teaching adults how to help children stay regulated through the use of empathic listening and curiosity. Once a child is regulated, CPS then helps the adult relate to the child by sharing their adult concerns. Finally, the child is then asked to reason with the adult to collaborate and brainstorm solutions. The entire process is built to help adults expose children to these small, digestible doses of “good stress” needed to foster brain change.

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