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Parents and Compassion: A Webinar on the Role of Schools in Healing Family Trauma

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

By Lauren Kiesel, CEI Intern

Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”– Theodore Roosevelt

As Suzan Mullane has seen firsthand in her work with West Virginia schools amidst the opioid crisis, family trauma isn’t simply left at the door when students enter the classroom. When addiction leads to an incarcerated parent or teens becoming the primary caretaker for young siblings, among many other types of family trauma, students may be silently suffering, therefore, distracted from learning at school.

CEI research associate and trustee Suzan Mullane, M.S.Ed., shared the old saying above with us during a webinar in May in which she provided tips to better equip school leaders to help heal family trauma. Rather than focusing simply on the student, Suzan drew our attention to the larger ecosystem, and how schools can work with their parents or caretakers to better support them and their families’ outcomes.

Caitlin NG Illustrations, 2019

What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma occurs when the impact of a traumatic experience is transmitted across generations (Psychology Today, 2012). Suzan’s work focused on the intergenerational trauma held by folks afflicted with the opioid crisis in West Virginia. In her systems perspective on trauma, she shared its many components, including:

  1. intoxication and addiction

  2. incarceration

  3. lack of school attendance

  4. overloaded foster homes

  5. lack of transportation

  6. limited childcare

  7. homelessness

  8. misinformation/fear

  9. rescuing and/or denial

  10. siblings raising siblings

While intergenerational trauma might look different across contexts, there are many similarities, so the utility of these tips extends beyond the context of opiate addiction.

Photo from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

Just as there are warning signs before an avalanche occurs and does major damage, there are warning signs for trauma that show before a family trauma crisis fully manifests. By picking up on these signs, and addressing the issues, we can remediate and tip the scales toward positive outcomes.

Suzan shared that parents holding onto past trauma might feel shame, guilt, or grief that might be passed on to their children. She suggests that if parents disclose trauma, to invite them to take the ACES test. In a personal conversation, Suzan emphasized,

“As children are developing, they internalize the family trauma and can carry it for a lifetime. ACES can take away some of the shame and let them know they’re not alone and it’s not their fault. Addiction was/is a coping mechanism for some, but a damaging course parents can change if they’re willing to explore a new way to cope. Mentorship from those who are wise from their own recovery or who have the compassionate tools can further deliver hope. Shame keeps folks trapped. ACES offers a potential bridge to recovery.”

You can take and learn more about the ACES test here.

How to Help Families Heal

Teachers might feel resistant to the idea of getting involved. They might think, “I’m not a therapist; I’m not a counselor.” But schools are often the first line of defense for mental health treatment for families and the catalyst to family healing. Suzan’s strategies can help a teacher feel more equipped and confident in aiding in the healing of their students and community.

During Parent Meetings

With people who are in trauma, particularly those suffering from addiction, there is oftentimes a lack of trust. To build trust, start with Heart Centered listening and preparing meetings that feel warm and secure, perhaps with a vase of flowers and herbal tea. Suzan suggests engaging parents before the meeting with a call bearing positive news, as well as to solicit any concerns they might have. She suggests shifting conversation from reactive to receptive by using the OARS Method on Reflective Listening.

  1. Open questions – Invite the person to tell their story without leading them in a particular direction. e.g, “How can I help you with… ?”

  2. Affirmation– Say something positive, making sure its genuine and congruent. e.g., “I appreciate that you are willing to meet with me today.”

  3. Reflective Listening– “I hear you saying…”

  4. Summary Reflection

Teach parents and students how the brain and emotions work. This video by Dr. Daniel Segal provides a “Hand Model” of the brain, and a visualization of the meaning behind “flipping your lid.”

Lastly, provide them with a list of vetted, reputable local wrap-around services available (e.g. WIC, Mental Health/CHIP, Detox Centers, Abuse Shelters) and virtual resources, such as:

Our ultimate goal is to develop resilience in students through building protective experiences and teaching coping skills that can counterbalance significant adversity and tip the see-saw toward positive outcomes. Showing compassion to their parents, and working with them to build this resilience in themselves and their children can be a remarkably beneficial strategy to build a positive feedback loop. Some additional resources for helping families in trauma are below. More Resources

References Castelloe, M. (2012, May 28). How trauma is carried across generations. Psychology Today. Mental Health America (ND). Helping at home: Tips for parents. Mullane, S. (2019, May 23). Parents and Compassion Webinar. SAMHSA. (2007). Motivational interviewing: Open questions, affirmation, reflective listening, and summary reflections (OARS). Homeless Hub. Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. St. Andrews, A. (2015, March 20). ACEs-, trauma-informed, and resilience-building parenting programs. Parenting with ACES. Starcheski, L. (2015, March 2). Take the ACE quiz — and learn what it does and doesn’t mean. NPR.


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