Changing Our Lens

Over the past few years, I’ve started wearing reading glasses.

It started when one day I looked at the back of the ibuprofen bottle to determine if I should take one pill or two for my headache and couldn’t read the label. I decided there was something wrong with the label and handed it to my husband for a second look. Guess what? There was nothing wrong with the label. Rather, it was the ‘lens’ through which I was viewing it. Sometimes our eyes need help with ‘lenses’ to see more clearly.

So, what does my needing reading glasses have to do with our work at The Connected Community? 

Many of the children we see at the counseling center or adoption program have experienced extremely ‘rough starts’ in life – including abuse, neglect, or other early childhood trauma. Some have been removed from their homes of origin and placed in foster or kinship care, others have been adopted. 

In our work at Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers, we use Trust Based Relational Intervention® or TBRI® -- an intervention model that has pulled together years of research from trauma and attachment theory, as well as neuroscience, that shows the evidence of actual damage to the brain when children have early abusive experiences ( 

One of the comments we often hear from caregivers and professionals about TBRI® is: “I love how TBRI® asks “What happened to you?” -- as opposed to “What’s wrong with you?” -- when observing the challenging behaviors that many children that come from hard places exhibit.

Children who have suffered abuse, neglect, and other trauma have overdeveloped parts of their brains – this is often referred to as the ‘downstairs brain’ or ‘primitive brain’ – and this is the part responsible for survival. These children had to learn to survive their horrific circumstances early in life, and consequently become wired up to respond in fearful ways. These fear-based behaviors developed in early childhood often continue as the child grows into older childhood and adolescence, unless there is intervention.

These fear-based, often challenging behaviors – like physical and verbal aggression, property destruction, food hoarding and persistent lying – come about because of trauma that occurred in relationship. Therefore, these behaviors can only be ‘healed’ through relationships. 

These kids appear to the world to be ‘bad kids’— always in trouble, acting out, persistently lying, running away – you name it! But science has taught us so much over the years of the actual impact of trauma and abuse, and/or lack of healthy attachment with caring, consistent loving caregivers.

Finally, it seems we’re starting to take note. It’s so much more respectful, kind, courageous, and helpful to notice a child struggling with unmanageable and challenging behaviors and wonder “What happened to you?” as opposed to “What’s wrong with you”.

When we see a child who has had the worst that life can offer a person – abuse in all of its possible forms, extreme neglect, and other traumatic experiences, and they are perhaps hitting, kicking, screaming, stealing, lying, running away – how much more understanding and compassionate to wonder: “Oh my goodness little one! What happened to you?”  Followed by: “What do you need?” and wonder then: “How can I help?” Perhaps the child needs food or water, a quiet space, a deep hug, or a soft tender eye gaze and a soft, calming voice?

We call this response to challenging behaviors using a trauma-informed lens. It’s so much more helpful to consider what children have been through and what need they are expressing through their challenging behavior, than to use the lens we’ve (I’ve) used for so long, which is the blaming/shaming lens that says “These are bad kids and something is wrong with them.”

When we use a kinder, more thoughtful, more compassionate lens – and have the patience and courage to wonder: “What happened to you?  What do you need?” – it helps the child begin to rebuild that wiring in their brain. Eventually, as we meet the need over, and over, and over again, that little (or not so little) person can come to a point where they know they are now safe and can trust. At the same time, when the caring adults in their world do our best to meet the child’s needs lovingly and consistently, we bring healing through connection and relationship. This is how these little hearts will heal and be able to learn, grow, live, in deep healthy connection with others.

It’s funny what a lens adjustment can do for us and for children from hard places who are so often misunderstood when seen through our old, unadjusted, and perhaps underinformed lens.

Here’s an activity you can do at home or in school: Join us in looking at children – or all people – through a different, more compassionate lens. When behaviors are frustrating or perplexing, let’s ask: “What happened to you?  What do you need?”  Looking through that trauma informed lens, we will all see more clearly.

~ Blog post by Debra Levenseller, LCSW, RPT-S, MCH Clinical Supervisor; TBRI® Practitioner