It’s not about what’s wrong, but what happened


Crisis Connection Inc. is challenging residents of Dubois County to change their thinking.

When you encounter a child misbehaving, a person using drugs or a co-worker struggling to complete tasks, rather than thinking, ‘What’s wrong with them?’ Crisis Connection wants you to think, ‘What happened to them?”

The change in thinking is called trauma-informed care, and is based on recent research that shows trauma in childhood — being a victim of or witnessing domestic violence, living in poverty, incarcerated parents, to name a few — changes how a child’s brain develops. Those effects make a child more susceptible to at-risk behaviors such as substance abuse, social problems and early death.

“(Research) told us that it’s not what’s wrong with you; it’s what’s happened to you to make you behave this way,” said Natosha Messmer, a community education specialist with Crisis Connection.

But the research also found cause for encouragement: The presence of even one trusted adult in a child’s life can reverse the effects of childhood trauma on the brain, putting a child’s development closer to on track. Crisis Connection is hosting trainings, titled Changing Minds, for community members to teach them to be that trusted adult.

Changing Minds focuses on five actions adults can do with the children in their lives: celebrate, comfort, listen, collaborate and inspire.

Celebrate means complimenting a child for what they do well, whether it’s raising their grade from a D to a C or winning a state championship. Comfort means staying calm and patient when a child explains traumatic experiences that happened to them rather than springing immediately to action. It also means letting people cry or be angry if they feel the need. Listen means learning about what the youth is passionate about. Rather than complaining about how much your child is on their phone or tablet, Crisis Connection suggests asking them what they’re looking at and talking about it. Under collaborate, adults will ask youth what they need and provide them with resources.

Crisis Connection’s Youth Advisory Council is an example of collaboration with youth. The council identifies needs in local high schools, and Crisis Connection helps the council plan events to tackle those issues. This year, the council is tackling teen dating violence and stress.

Under inspire, adults simply encourage youth to explore new ideas or activities.

“It seems so simple, and yet it’s really powerful,” said Joan Knies, primary prevention coordinator with Crisis Connection.

Dawn Kilian, a first-grade teacher at Ireland Elementary, attended the first Changing Minds training earlier this month. As a mother, teacher and volunteer with Dubois County Court Appointed Special Advocates, an organization that advocates for children going through the court system as the result of neglect or abuse, Kilian thought the training was worthwhile. She was surprised to learn how trauma affects children’s brains.

“I was amazed at finding out how it alters the whole thought process,” Kilian said via email.

The next Changing Minds session will be held Wednesday, and it already has a wait list.

Perry County, where Crisis Connection also has an office, set up a communitywide trauma-informed care system a couple of years ago in response to a high number of children in need of foster care. The Strong Families, Strong Community is a collaborative coalition made up of several community entities in law enforcement, education and prevention that works to alleviate violence and trauma in the community through education and prevention efforts including trauma-informed care.

The goal is for everyone in the community to complete a training like Changing Minds. So far, the effort seems to be successful. Messmer, who works with Strong Families, Strong Communities, said the county got more volunteers with its Court Appointed Special Advocates program and the number of children in foster care has dropped since the coalition formed.

Crisis Connection’s Jasper office would like to see a similar program replicated in Dubois County.

Knies and Messmer like the Changing Minds program because it offers action items anyone can do. The training also includes two videos that tell the story of two adults who experienced trauma as children, had a trusted adult at their schools who helped them and went on to be successful adults. Knies said those videos elicited emotional reactions from some of the attendees at the first Changing Minds training this month.

“During the videos, there were people who got teary-eyed,” Knies said. “They realized they were that person to somebody.”

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