4 Ways Mentorship is Therapeutic for Children with Complex Trauma Needs

for mentors for program directors Jan 17, 2024

As a young social worker, I often thought I wasn’t doing enough. 

As a post-adoption case manager, I got kids on my caseload after an adoptive parent reached out for help. Many times parents felt as though they made a terrible mistake in adopting and wanted to know the process to “unadopt,” but that wasn’t a thing, so I was sent in to offer therapeutic parenting techniques, educate about the lasting effects of childhood trauma and be a support for the family unit. 

Half my time was spent with the parents and the other half of my time was working with the kid one on one, usually in their home, but many times I took the child out into the community. And when I say “working with the kid,” I really mean hanging out. We went to playgrounds, did arts and crafts, played games, and did things that interested them. Many times I would be swinging on a swingset, casually engaging a youth in conversation about whatever is new in their world and I’d be thinking to myself is this enough? As a social worker shouldn’t I be diving into traumas, talking about feelings, understanding what would make their life easier, developing or advocating for resources? 

And of course, upon any intake or discussed need I would make a referral or suggest resources, but the crux of my time was spent just being with the kid. I would go back to my supervisor and explain, “I didn’t do much with them, we just built forts, and played with dolls, should I be doing more?” My supervisor corrected me though. He helped me understand that I was doing the most important work with them. 

He leaned in with a smile and asked, “What if I told you that what these kids need more than anything, is safe, reliable adults? They need someone in their life who hears about their trauma history, behavior, and challenges and doesn’t make them a project to fix but sees them as a human that is way more than their past. They desperately need the opportunity to be a kid, to have someone take a vested interest, to show them they matter and that what they’re interested in, struggling with, showing up as is okay and nothing more is expected. See, what you’re doing is showing you care. No agenda, no quotas to fill just a human valuing another human. Something many of the kids we serve have not experienced and they deserve that, first and foremost.

This changed the way I viewed my work. This allowed me to always put the relationship first and it is why I created Stable Moments and this trauma-informed mentorship model. These kids don’t need more therapists. I do think they should have one, a really good developmental trauma therapist who works with their whole family, but many of these kids are therapied out. 

If they have been in foster care for any length of time they have been assigned a therapist. Too often kids have seen many different therapists, due to turnover and switching counties or districts. So they learn how to use the therapeutic language but the therapist just turns into another adult who won't stick around once they leave their job or the kid’s placement changes. 

Kids who are turned off to therapy need a way to be actively engaged in activities that just feel like hanging out, with a reliable, caring, adult. This is why I believe mentoring is therapeutic in and of itself, even if the mentor is “just a caring adult” with no mental health background.

Here are four ways mentorship is therapeutic for children with complex trauma needs:

  1. Showing Up - Simply showing up for a child who has come to understand they aren’t worth showing up for is powerful. These kids may have different caregivers, different homes, and people who said they’d be home for dinner but got arrested. By showing up, on time, reliably, over and over again, you start to rebuild an idea that people have integrity and most importantly they are worth showing up for. 
  2. Showing Interest - Simply getting to know a kid who may have been ignored, neglected, or told they were stupid, worthless, or will amount to nothing is powerful. When you explore a child’s interests with curiosity and positivity, you not only develop self-worth, but you allow them to build strengths around their interests which can in turn develop independence and responsibility. 
  3. Navigating a Relationship - This is probably the scariest part for both the mentor and the child. Relationships are tough and come with a whole bunch of preconceived notions of expectations and norms. But, mentors who come in with an open mind, are genuinely curious, and are not afraid to make mistakes are the best, because they are showing a child, that although relationships can be tricky, they can also be enriching, genuine, rewarding, and reciprocal. A mentor who can admit mistakes, say sorry, take ownership for their half of the dynamic, and show a child who has not been shown healthy relationships, what human connection is all about. 
  4. Being a Role Model - Let’s say you do nothing more than hang out with a kid in a positive, healthy, safe way. You are providing them with one example of a caring, contributive, responsible human. They may have already determined all people are bad, or all people let you down. Even if you are the only healthy relationship they had, they’ll be able to point to you when considering who they want to be and what is possible for them.

The whole point is that we don't need to be therapists, have some special degree, or think we're fixing anyone. We need to be humans and that is why mentorship is so magical!



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