Since 1990, the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC) has pioneered strength-based, resilience-focused interventions with young people. As a core piece of these interventions, the helping adult becomes a witness seeking to understand the deeply painful experiences of traumatized children. How traumatized youth interpret themselves, their interactions with others, and their environment guide treatment. We often hear traumatized youth say:
If you don’t think what I think… feel what I feel… experience what I experience… see what I see when I look at myself, others, and the world around me… how can you possibly know what is best for me?
Childhood trauma is marked by an overwhelming sense of terror and powerlessness (Steele & Kuban, 2013). Loss of loving relationships is yet another type of trauma that produces the pain of sadness and grief. The resulting symptoms only reflect the neurological, biological, and emotional coping systems mobilized in the struggle to survive. Young people need new strategies for moving beyond past trauma, regulating emotions, and coping with future challenges.
Neuroscience confirms that trauma is experienced in the deep affective and survival areas of the brain where there are only sensations, emotionally conditioned memories, and visual images (Levine & Kline, 2008; Perry, 2009; van der Kolk, 2006). These define how traumatized youth view themselves and the terrifying world around them. Reason, language, and logic needed to make sense of past experiences are upper brain cognitive functions that are difficult to access in trauma (Levine & Kline, 2008; Perry, 2009; van der Kolk, 2006). This explains the limitation of traditional talk therapy or narrowly cognitive interventions. Therefore TLC’s Structured Sensory Interventions for Traumatized Children, Adolescents and Parents (SITCAP) starts with the lived experience of youth which drives their behavior.
SITCAP provides the opportunity to safely revisit and rework past trauma, beginning with sensory memories which youth have experienced and stored. Trauma-related symptoms can be reduced and resilience strengthened to support post-traumatic growth as youth engage in SITCAP (Steele & Kuban, 2013). The process is designed to support safety, emotional regulation, and empowerment.
With the adult as a curious witness, youth are able to take the lead and set the pace of intervention. They are giving permission to say “yes” or “no” to whatever they are asked to talk about and discover that saying “no” is honored. This genuine interest is essential to allow the youth to experience the intervention as safe and the practitioner as trustworthy. Their safety remains the primary focus. The SITCAP process helps youth identify ways their body responds to stress. Young people recognize how post-traumatic memories can be activated by current events and learn to “resource” their body to regulate their reactions.