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Camber Children's Mental Health

Healing From Abuse Begins with Relearning How to Trust

experiential learning

Laurel Phillips

This story was selected as a winner during our 2018 Summer Story Contest. It was submitted by Laurel Phillips, a Therapist at KVC Prairie Ridge Hospital, a children’s psychiatric hospital that helps youth experiencing depression, anxiety, trauma, substance abuse, and other behavioral health crises.

I once worked with a young lady, about 15 years old, who I will call Jessica for confidentiality purposes. Jessica experienced severe physical and sexual abuse her entire life and never knew a safe adult she could trust. Because of this trauma, she was having severe behavioral issues such as running from her foster care placements and she was unable to be safe in the community. Jessica was admitted to KVC Prairie Ridge Hospital for long-term treatment to help her heal from trauma she had experienced so she could safely live an independent life.

Engaging to Build Comfort and Trust

Jessica was a very sweet and thoughtful girl who loved giving hugs and sharing with other youth in the hospital to make them feel better. I was Jessica’s therapist and spent most of my time with her working on safety and security to help her learn how to trust adults. When we started working together, I asked her what types of activities she would enjoy and then came up with special therapy activities for us to do together to help her feel comfortable. We would go to the playground on campus, use clay to make models, play with figurines in a sand tray, play card games and listen to music. My approach to helping her heal from trauma was to actively engage with Jessica in ways that made her feel comfortable to build rapport. In many ways, what I wanted to do was show her that I was a safe person.

I found that Jessica’s favorite activity was to go outside and play on the playground. She loved to climb and swing and have a bit more freedom. Jessica was always excited about our time together and would often ask me about what activities we would be doing together the next week. I didn’t want Jessica to feel pressure from me to say certain things or talk about her past if she wasn’t ready, so we focused on building trust. If she brought up certain topics, then we would explore them throughout our sessions.

Giving Jessica the Power to Choose

Over time, I was able to show Jessica what it was like to find safety in an adult and I didn’t push her into talking about her trauma until she was ready. Once she trusted me, she was able to start opening up about her experiences, which was a big step toward healing from trauma. It was important to let Jessica decide when she was ready to open up because when people experience abuse and neglect, especially as children, they often lose a feeling of control in their lives. Most of Jessica’s life, she was not given the opportunity to have control over what was happening to her. Even being in foster care, while it is an intervention to protect a child’s safety, can be challenging for children and make them feel powerless in their life. By letting Jessica decide when or if she wanted to process her trauma, she retained power over her story.

Finding Confidence and Planning a Future

After a few weeks of talking with me about the trauma she endured, Jessica became stable and stopped having behavioral issues. She also became more confident and found her own voice. She started advocating for herself and what she wanted for her life and was able to trust her own instincts more. Jessica started talking about her future and what she wanted for herself. She was no longer focused on her abusers and wanted to move forward. She became much more stable and secure in her current situation and was soon able to safely live outside of the hospital.

It was so inspirational to help Jessica heal from trauma and to see the courage and strength she displayed. Our team showed Jessica how to voice her opinion about where she wanted to live once she left the hospital. It was important in Jessica’s path to healing that she had control over her life and felt safe.

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