Traumatic stress affects many of Shelterwood’s clients. Shelterwood’s residential trauma treatment acknowledges the role trauma plays in a teen’s healing journey and integrates that understanding into all aspects of life at the residential treatment center. 

“It’s hard to put trauma-informed care into a short elevator speech,” shares Kimberly Fielding, Shelterwood therapist and Director of Training. “But if I had to, [traumatic stress] is about being out of control and not having a plan to get back into control. Trauma-informed care helps us have a sense of control over our own lives.” 

Before she came to Shelterwood, Kimberly was the director of a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) four-year grant to advance trauma-informed care in Joplin, Missouri. She then consulted on trauma-informed care for two more years before bringing her extensive knowledge to Shelterwood in early 2019. 

What is trauma?

Kimberly uses the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) “three Es” concept of trauma:

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.

“Trauma is basically an injury to the psycho-social functioning part of the brain,” Kimberly says. “It’s very complex.” 

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Institute, two-thirds of children have experienced a traumatic event by age 16. Some examples of traumatic events are:

  • Abuse or neglect
  • Experiencing a major parental loss (e.g., through divorce, death, or military deployment)
  • Being a victim of violence
  • Witnessing violence at home, at school or in the community
  • Natural disasters
  • Being in an accident or having a serious illness

Kimberly explains that, as a result of trauma, people tend to react in a cycle of hyper-alertness and hyper-avoidance to perceived threats—also called a “threat bias”. Teens who are dealing with trauma may act out by being aggressive or taking risks. They can also “act in” by checking out or giving up control. Trauma-informed care recognizes the full spectrum of responses to trauma and creates an environment where teens are safe to recover. 

“Trauma-informed care is a consistent form of behavior that is therapeutic in nature,” Kimberly elaborates. “The techniques are responses to help address that threat bias, to help share that control.”

At Shelterwood, Kimberly says staff look beyond behaviors to understand their underlying causes. “You have to address the root before we can expect a change in the fruit,” Kimberly emphasizes.

Instead of focusing on immediate behavioral change, Shelterwood’s team prioritizes building healthy relationships—”connection before correction”—where teens can feel emotionally safe. They need to be reassured that they belong, have significance and are being heard. 

“Yes, we do have parameters about acceptable behaviors, and those are mostly about physical safety,” says Kimberly. “Through relationship, we show how we can have trust. And we build that trust and accountability and respect along the way.” 

Shelterwood strives to help students share control in all areas of their lives. In school, teachers help students feel safe in the classroom and offer a variety of ways to learn and achieve their academic goals. In the dining hall, Shelterwood offers many choices and options for healthy eating. At bedtime—another hot spot for conflict and stress—Shelterwood has a gentle routine that helps teach teens to learn to choose and form relaxing habits. Day by day, trauma-informed care helps teens move from needing external controls to having autonomy over their own choices. 

“Trauma-informed care is not about absolving boundaries or consequences,” highlights Kimberly. “It’s about helping [students] reflect on their own behavior, so they can gain self-awareness and make choices based on what’s healthy for them and in their own best interests.”

Does your teen need help managing the effects of trauma? Shelterwood is here. Talk to one of our trauma-informed admissions counselors today.

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