Think of a teacup resting on a saucer. Picture a liquid being added to the cup, slowly at first, and then faster and faster until it starts spilling over the edges of the cup. This analogy, from Dr. Steven Finn, describes what happens when a child’s emotions (the liquid) are too big for the child’s capacity to handle them (the teacup). When this happens, the child relies on the adult (the saucer) to help catch the spill.
Now picture that we’re not just talking about big feelings, but also about traumatic experiences. The saucer is still there to catch the spills. But what happens when the saucer can’t do its job? What happens when the trauma is so great it spills beyond the saucer? Or when the saucer itself has a crack because of its own traumatic experiences?
Teachers, mental health professionals and anyone else who works with children who experience trauma are at risk of experiencing secondary trauma. This is the name for the act of experiencing trauma symptoms, even if the trauma happened to someone else.
The symptoms of secondary trauma are much like the symptoms of trauma:
Concerns about safety
Numbness, detachment, powerlessness, hopelessness
So what do we do with all of these symptoms?
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky has introduced us to a new term: trauma stewardship. She is the founder of The Trauma Stewardship Institute and the author of Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others.
Trauma stewardship is, as the book title suggests, the act of caring for ourselves while also caring for others. It's a form of self-care specific to secondary trauma.
And look – we all know that things only happen when we plan for them, right?
So today, let’s make a trauma self-care plan. This is a tool that you can use when you start to experience secondary trauma to help you manage your responses. We recommend that you complete this tool when you’re not feeling particularly stressed, and then save it somewhere you can easily access it when you need it.
Congrats on working on your trauma self-care plan! Taking care of your own mental health needs is good for you, and for those you work with. A healthy adult is essential to helping support healthy children.