Trust-Based Relational Intervention
Imagine the beach on a clear, sunny day.
The gently-rolling waves. The hot sand and hot sun. A palm tree swaying in the breeze. Maybe a scuttling crab, but nothing to worry about. A cold drink in your hand and a soft towel under your umbrella.
Now imagine the beach during a storm.
The waves rear up in great walls that seem likely to swallow you. Lightning flashes and the palm tree snaps in half. Sheets of rain pour over the sand, destroying sand castles and drenching your towel. The umbrella is torn out of the ground and swept down the beach. Perhaps, if your imagination is particularly active, a ship on the horizon tilts dangerously, or shark fins appear a few yards from shore.
For those of us who have not experienced trauma in our lives, we know the difference between the scenes above. We know when the beach is safe and when it is not - when it’s okay to lay back and relax, or play, and when it’s best to run for cover. And it isn’t just the beach. We have a view of the world that allows us to tell when a situation is safe and when it’s dangerous, when we can relax and when we should be on alert.
For those affected by trauma, especially children, they don’t see that difference. The beach before them is always plagued by thunder and sharks and incoming pirates. They’ve experienced too many storms to see it any other way. In their experience, the beach - or just everyday life - is not safe, and there is no time to relax or breathe or play.
Thanks to the generosity of one of our stateside partners, Vintage 242 Church, all of our staff was recently trained in Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), a model that trains caregivers to provide effective support and treatment for children from trauma. The goal of TBRI is to address behavior based on its cause - and always in a way that promotes trust in the child’s caregiver and an understanding of how they are viewing the situation.
One of the best ways to earn a child’s trust is to demonstrate that you are always willing to meet their needs, whether you agree that they exist or not. Has a child ever asked you for a Band-Aid despite having no visible sign or a physical injury? Or asked for food even though you know they just ate a big lunch? All irritation aside, that child is asking for confirmation that you are able and willing to meet their needs. We give them a Band-Aid because they feel hurt, not because we see an injury. We give them a banana or a handful of peanuts because they feel hungry, not because we think they should be hungry. Building trust requires acknowledging that a child’s perspective or opinion matters.
TBRI also focuses on discipline and behavior that brings a child closer, rather than pushing them farther away. For kids who have already experienced being abused or neglected by caretakers, discipline is hard. They may be acting out to see if you’ll still love them when they do, or because they don’t know that that behavior is a problem. The point is, we can’t know. And regardless, we need to take away any reasons they have to doubt our love. So instead of sending the child to their room or to bed without dinner, we ask them to talk to us, we hold them close, or we give them an opportunity to try again. We build relationships, we build trust, and we allow our children to heal from what’s hurt them.
Another huge part of TBRI is training kids to recognize when their bodies are becoming dysregulated and giving them the tools to fix that. Dysregulation can look like a lot of different things - hyperactivity, dissociation, hunger, shivering, and bursts of anger, to name a few - and kids who grow up in normal circumstances learn quickly to address it. If a child is cold, they put on a sweater; if he’s hungry, he asks for a snack; if she’s tired, she takes a nap. But for children who have been kept, in some way, from regulating themselves, these are not the obvious solutions. If there’s never any food in the house, he learns not to ask for it when he’s hungry. If she’s punished for falling asleep, she learns to push herself through exhaustion. And because of this, their bodies panic at the slightest dysregulation. The child isn’t choosing to have a meltdown when snack is five minutes late - her own body is telling her to find food, fast, or she might not get it again.
One of our favorite things about TBRI is that the developers and experts of the system make it clear that while it was developed and defined in the context of caring for children from trauma, it’s really a system for developing relationships with everyone we interact with. Our children, our parents, our siblings, our friends, our spouses, our coworkers, the bagger at the grocery store - every person with whom we have a relationship can benefit from being understood and valued, from trusting us to care for their needs and perspectives.
We know that not all of you regularly interact with kids from trauma. But all of you interact with someone. And the key to a world where others treat kids from trauma with respect, understanding, and love is a world that models that in treating everyone this way.
“Do everything in love.” - 1 Corinthians 16:14