Early Childhood Trauma and Self-Inflicted Injury: Building Trust

By Suzan Mullane, CEI Research Associate and Faculty

Editor’s Note: Suzan has trained teams to become trauma care specialists in their own districts. Contact the Center for Educational Improvement for additional information.

 The number of children who experience tremendous horror in the first years of life is on the rise, as is the collateral damage of the opiate crisis.

In 2015, my perspective on self-injury, shame, and repressed memory changed when as part of my trauma work with schools, I was asked to observe a rural Appalachian three-year-old in a town in the midst of the opioid epidemic. I had no background information on the child or her situation prior to my observation. My identified student (I’ll call her Violet) was clutching two corndogs when I walked in the classroom.

Wide-eyed and screaming at my mere presence, tiny Violet leaped to the teacher assistant’s lap clutching the corn dogs. I immediately sank down to the floor to minimize my petite stature. I was the source of Violet’s current terror. I pulled out one of my trust-building tools-my baby doll. Loving on my baby doll, rocking, nurturing my toy, I crawled on my belly to remain unthreatening.  I had terrorized Violet by simply entering the doorway. My observation/thoughts:

  1. Unknown adults are scary even terrifying (possible victim of severe abuse)
  2. Holding corn dogs but not eating them (perhaps a trauma footprint of hunger/neglect)
  3. Limited language: uses grunting noises and yells to seek comfort
  4. Red spots on her body are leaving marks when she pinches herself (reenacting trauma).

After one hour of observing me, Violet started to relax a little.  Watching me ‘love on my baby’ gave her the sense I was a safe person. For a brief period, Violet watched toddler yoga that was occurring in her classroom. She also demonstrated some parallel, but not interactive, play.

Research tells us that trust and safety in the classroom or home comes before:

  • shame reduction,
  • repressed memory reduction,
  • self-regulation without self-inflicted pain, and
  • joyful social interaction.

For a child such as Violet, establishing trust and safety is key. We may not know everything about her situation, and we may not be able to do all that we would like to improve her life; however, there is much that we can do in schools to help establish ourselves as ‘protective factors’ (nurturing adults; Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2010; Santos, 2012). We also know that helping children feel alive and present in their own bodies, without shame, is vital to changing the trajectory of fear and anxiety. Without intervention, the consequences can be severe and long lasting ‘“ the consequences may include isolation and withdrawal, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, anti-social behaviors, and mental illness’”and in particular disassociation and adult psychosis.


Blaustein, M. E., & Kinniburgh, K. M. (2010). Treating traumatic stress in children and adolescents: How to foster resilience through attachment, self-regulation, and competency. Guilford Press.

Santos, S. R. (2012). ‘Why resilience?’: A review of literature of resilience and implications for further educational research. San Diego, CA: San Diego State University.


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