Underrecognition of trauma in school-age youths can have devastating consequences, including misdiagnoses of illnesses such as attention-deficit disorder, a school-based counselor told a breakout session audience Thursday at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD) in Baltimore.
Danielle Doskocil, MSW, LPC, who works in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system in North Carolina, cited several examples of life stressors that school officials and treating professionals can often overlook. A parent might wonder why, for example, a teen whose family recently moved to a more comfortable neighborhood is suddenly smoking marijuana for the first time. The answer could lie in the move itself. “There's a grief process when you move,” Doskocil said.
Other reactions by professionals who work with young people are more insidious, she suggests. In the 70% Latino school population that she serves, Doskocil sees many instances where teachers minimize the struggles that new immigrant children have endured, mistaking their fear for indifference.
“A lot of teachers use their political ideology to judge these kids,” Doskocil said. “They'll say, 'He doesn't pay attention in class.' But back in Honduras he was almost done with school, and now he's hearing that he's going to have to be in school until he's 18.”
Youths will react to traumatic events in different ways, with some simply surrendering while others will muster a resource that is coming to be referred to as “grit” (or what Doskocil likes to call “stick-to-itiveness”).
In her work, Doskocil will directly ask students whether they have experienced anything in their lives that they consider to be traumatic, and she discovers that some have been waiting to share their experiences with someone for a long time, she said.
She says she also benefits from being “a 14-year-old at heart,” making it easier for her to speak young people's language. “I'm the one in school with the tattoos and the blue hair,” she said. “I'm good at finding the halfway point [with the kids]. I don't tell them they can't swear in my office, or that they have to put their phones away.”
Doskocil touted both the Seeking Safety and Somatic Experiencing curricula as useful resources for addressing trauma in youths, and also discussed the benefits of Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS), with its focus on patient assets rather than deficits.