The SISTER2sister youth mentoring program trauma framework

The aim of using a trauma framework has been to strategically increase the potential of the program to repair some of the damage caused by childhood trauma and to create opportunities for the Little Sisters to engage in developmental experiences that they may have missed out on.

There are several interventions which can be used to repair the brain and heal the impacts of childhood trauma. The SISTER2sister program focuses on a few key aspects outlined below.

Trauma informed interventions increase the potential for recovery and growth. In the SISTER2sister program, this means assessing each girl’s trauma history and using intake information to create a basic profile of the impact of trauma in each of the key intervention areas mentioned below. This guides the program leaders and the individual mentors to have a stronger understanding of each of the Little Sisters and will also inform individual and group relationship building activities, engagement strategies and broader program development.

As SISTER2sister is a mentoring program in a group setting, many of the activities, while being trauma informed, cannot be designed to respond to each girl’s individual needs. It is in the relationship with their Big Sister mentor that individual responses can be developed with the caveat that SISTER2sister is not a therapeutic program. Where possible the program always aims to work in tandem with therapeutic and other support services.

The importance of relationships

Healing happens in relationships. For young people who have experienced childhood trauma, healing can start when they are in a safe relationship. It is the relationship between a baby and their carers/parents that shapes the development of the brain, lays relational templates for the future and in which the body develops healthy and functional systems.

The relationship that the Little Sisters form with their Big Sister and with the program itself provides the relational environment in which healing and new growth can occur. The Big Sister mentors, welfare team and team leaders provide relationship environments within which the Little Sisters can have safe regulatory experiences. They experience modelling of regulated behaviour from which they can they can learn how to regulate themselves.

These relationships provide predictability, which is critical to creating the feelings of safety needed to learn new behaviours. These relationships also provide relationally safe and enriching experiences from which the Little Sisters can heal and flourish. This safety and connection provided through the relationships in the program create a foundation on which recovery and growth can begin. Having their big sister to support them, to do the activities with them, to cheer them on, to sometimes need their help, is part of creating rich relational experiences for the Little Sisters that are an important part of their healing and growth.

Repetitions of experience

To create the new brain pathways there must be multiple repetitions of an experience so that it becomes “hard wired” in the brain. These experiences need to be patterned, repetitive and rhythmic. When an experience is repeated, the brain synapses fire off and connect to each other making a new pathway.

One of the reasons that SISTER2sister has been so successful is the length of time that the program runs for. Each month (and through their connection to their Big Sister during the month) the Little Sisters experience the repetition of a kind and loving connection with adults, which helps to create a new relational pathway in their brain and a corresponding positive response in their nervous systems. One-off positive experiences are less likely to create sustained long-term change compared to repetitive positive experiences over a sustained period of time.

The role of activities

The body holds the memory of everything that has happened in each of the Little Sisters’ lives. It is important to work with the body as well as the mind. We know that when trauma responses are activated the thinking brain turns off. Trying to talk to the Little Sisters about their challenging behaviour or inappropriate responses will not be effective unless we help them listen to their body, notice how it is reacting and learn how to manage those reactions.

In order to do this the Little Sisters need to experience activities that help their bodies and brain to move from survival to safety – to switch from the sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Any activity can achieve this as long as it helps to regulate breathing and heart rate, encourages the release of oxytocin, engages the senses, is fun, playful, rhythmic and soothing and occurs in a safe and connected environment.

Key components of the SISTER2sister program are the monthly outings and activities that incorporate new and challenging experiences for Little Sisters. These activities facilitate bonding and trust between the Big and Little Sisters, they build confidence and self-esteem, they allow Little Sisters to see themselves as courageous, strong and part of a team, to build empathy for themselves and others, to become more body confident. The activities build over the program providing a graded transformational experience from getting into a canoe to surfing, trapeze and a final presentation at graduation.

For many Little Sisters these outings are also the only opportunity they have to shed the burden of adult responsibilities they carry at home and ‘be a kid for a day’. This enables them to ‘turn off’ their stress response, relax and have fun.

Creating a safe environment

Creating the right environment enables individuals who have suffered trauma to experience change.

All face-to-face group sessions with the Little Sisters are designed to maximise opportunities for connection, grounding, safety and regulation. This is done by:

  • Ensuring comfortable cushions, big beanbags, blankets and sensory beanbags for everyone to use and to create a regulating, sensory supportive and visually inviting environment.
  • Greeting Little Sisters on arrival and where appropriate engaging them in an activity that creates connection and that supports them to move into a relaxed and safe space.
  • Beginning the sessions with everyone sitting in a circle and having a range of check in activities, which can be used.
  • Starting the sessions with a physical, brain stem based activity focussing on regulating arousal, and limbic system activities which support the Little Sisters to connect with each other and the adults.
  • Having a psychoeducational focus for session presentations. This means creating opportunities for the Little Sisters to learn skills that strengthen their emotional and social functioning. An example of one of these is helping the Little Sisters to recognise and manage their fight, flight or freeze responses.
  • Encouraging all the session presenters to include movement and other regulating and sensory activities into their presentations. This helps the Little Sisters to keep their cognitive brain on line, increases the potential for learning to embedded in memory and engages a range of learning styles.