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March 14, 2019 Practice Points

Five Ways Lawyers Can Build Resilience in Child Clients

As an advocate, you have the important power to change not only the trajectory of their lives but their mental development too!

By Eliza M. Hirst

Nearly all children involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems have experienced chronic trauma and toxic stress and as a result experience significant changes to their brains and bodies. The science behind resilience from traumatic life events is complicated, but the formula is simple. In order to become resilient, a child needs one trusted adult (more are obviously better!). As a child attorney, you have a significant opportunity to help children become resilient from their traumatic experiences. 

Below are five tips to help your child clients heal and thrive:

  1. Exercise Universal Precautions. Assume all of your clients have experienced trauma. Often times children may be triggered by a sight, smell, sound, touch, or certain words that flood their senses and sometimes their actions or reactions may be beyond their control. Understanding that trauma has a profound impact on children can help you advocate for your child clients regarding their behavior or needs.
  2. Build Connections. Permanency should always be at the forefront of all child welfare advocacy. However, even if permanency is not an option in the short term, child attorneys can use the simple mathematical formula of: traumatized child + trusted adult = resilience. The healthy connections with adults that children develop will help them heal from traumatic experiences. Seek out family members or important people in children’s lives (coaches, teachers, foster parents, social workers, and the child attorney) to help them become resilient. Not only will this help them to learn to trust, it will actually help children grow new healthy neural connections in their brains!
  3. Help Kids Become Confident. Find out what they are good at! So many decisions in the child welfare system are beyond children’s control. Oftentimes, children who experience trauma feel like it is their fault they are in foster care. Finding extracurricular activities that help kids find out what they are good at builds self-confidence and healthy brains. This also ties back to the legal obligation and importance of fostering normalcy.
  4. Ask Before You Touch. Human touch, high fives, fist bumps, and hugs create powerful healthy chemical reactions in the brain. However, for child clients who have been sexually or physically abused, touch can be very scary or threatening. If you are excited, proud, or wanting to console a child client make sure you ask the client before you lean in for a high five or a hug. Asking for permission gives the child control and time to decide whether he or she feels safe with physical contact. It also helps to build trust and healthy brains!
  5. Help Your Child Client Fix Mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but often times when our child clients make mistakes they are removed from their school or their school placement. As a result of so much instability, many child clients do not know how to repair relationships or make a situation right. Talk to your child clients about what they could do differently next time, asking for help, and the power of apologies. These types of conversations not only build relationships, they also help children to navigate some fundamentally important life skills that they may not always receive in their families, in school, or in court. The power of an apology or a discussion about how to repair a relationship may positively impact permanency, school placement, and connections for your child client.

Every healthy encouraging conversation you have with your child client is a step toward helping him or her become resilient. Remember as their advocate, you have the important power to change not only the trajectory of their lives but their brains too!

Eliza M. Hirst  is a deputy child advocate at the Office of the Child Advocate in Wilmington, Delaware.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).