Category: Resources

Connecting With Hurting People

There is something that we all have in common; we all came from somewhere. We didn’t just arrive in the present. And because we are all on a journey we all have stories to tell. All of us have had adverse experiences and many of us have lived through trauma. Unfortunately, too many people have stories that include big traumatic events like the loss of everything they have and needing to leave everything behind because of a natural disaster.

If we want to help those who have lived through these very traumatic experiences, we will need to have a basic understanding of trauma. We will need this basic understanding in order to cultivate the empathy necessary for us to become compassionate people. Compassion is defined as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”

But what is empathy? I find that it is often a misunderstood response. All it means is that we choose to identify with another person’s thoughts and feelings. Empathy doesn’t mean that you shared the experience, it means that we choose to connect with someone who is hurting.

A large part of connecting with someone who is hurting is understanding that their loss and pain is real. We need to understand their experiences as best we can so that we can be fully present with them in the moment. Many hurting people need someone to hang in there with them and not give up on them. They need us to focus on them and really see them. Whenever I read that “Jesus saw the crowd” in the gospels, I know that he not only saw them as individuals but that he saw their hurts and their needs well.

If we want to connect with hurting people we have to remain open to their thoughts and feelings. We can’t be dismissive of either of those two things because trauma is personal. Our thoughts and feelings have to be secondary to theirs. In order to help them the best we can, we will need to have some understanding of:

  • What trauma is
  • How it impacts a person
  • How it informs their behavior

Many challenging interactions and behaviors are driven by people’s histories and experiences. Much of what we interpret as controlling or manipulative behaviors are rooted in the individual’s desire to survive. We have to reject “us vs. them” thinking and compassionately embrace a posture of togetherness as we focus on becoming their ally, coach, and advocate.

What is trauma?

Trauma is either a physical wound or a psychological injury…or both. Most of the people we encounter have experienced both. As a result, they are living in a state of stress and fear which drives the development of survival tactics and negative behaviors. It will serve us well if we remember that behaviors are always an expression of a need. We have to learn to follow the needs be they physical, emotional, or spiritual if we want to help.

We can’t forget that trauma is personal and we cannot dismiss someone’s response to an event that they lived through. Remember, our thoughts and feelings have to be secondary to theirs.

What is the impact of trauma?

There are five things impacted by trauma. They are a person’s:

  • Brain
  • Body
  • Biology
  • Beliefs
  • Behavior


All of us are familiar with the left and right hemispheres of the brain, but fewer are familiar with the concept of the downstairs and upstairs brain. A simple explanation is that the amygdala (also referred to the “primal brain”) is the first part of our brains to form in utero. It forms at the top of the brainstem and is where all of our emotional and fear responses come from. This is the downstairs brain.

The upstairs brain is where logic and reason live. People who’ve experienced trauma or who are stressed and afraid will access downstairs brain more frequently and more easily than people who have not lived through trauma. When we encounter somebody who is operating from their downstairs brain instead of their upstairs brain, an easy way to help them access their upstairs brain is to ask them questions that start with who, what, where, when, why, how. It forces them back to the logical part of their brain because they cannot answer any question that starts with one of those 7 words with yes or no. They have to think about their answer. If you need information from an emotional, stressed, or traumatized person then helping them move back into their upstairs brain is a valuable skill.

The Handy Model of the Brain



Trauma has a pretty significant impact on a body’s ability to process sensory inputs. That is why people who are stressed will sometimes rock back and forth or find push on parasympathetic pressure points like their temples or upper lips. We have to be aware of this so that we will not become distracted or annoyed when someone we are trying to help does these things.


Trauma has a negative impact on a person’s neurochemistry. All of the good chemicals like dopamine tend to be too low and all of the negative chemicals like cortisol tend to be too high. Being aware that traumatized people will respond in non-typical ways is important to remember.


Traumatic experiences can have a negative impact on a person’s belief system. Trauma will often cause people to believe that they deserve the bad things that happened to them, or that they are not worthy of good things. Working with hurting people requires of us to make them feel like they matter.


Not only do traumatic experiences lead negative behaviors, but they hinder a person’s ability to regulate their own behavior. One of the behaviors that frequently manifests is the desire to control all situations. Because part of their traumatic experience is rooted on chaos they do not wish to live in chaos ever again. Giving some control to a traumatized person is an invaluable part of their healing.

How does trauma inform behavior?

Hebbian Theory tells us that “what fires together, wires together.” In simple terms when we experience something neurons fire and wire together to make new neurological pathways. This explains why we can hit a golf ball without thinking about all of the mechanics of our swing, or serve a tennis ball without thinking about what we are doing, or how we can arrive at work in the morning and have no memories of the trip between our home and our office. But, the Hebbian Theory works in the negative too. It explains why traumatized children rarely if ever have a good experience at places like Chuck E Cheese. Their experiences have taught them that when things get loud people (usually me) get hurt.

People who have experienced traumatic events tend to have at least one of these fear responses:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze


Fight is the easiest response to explain because it is the most obvious. It can be physical or it can be verbal but there is a component of aggression involved. A fight response doesn’t mean you are argumentative or difficult to deal with, it can mean that you are scared.


Flight another response almost explains itself. It means to leave to run away. One of the things we have to remember is that we can flee a situation emotionally when we are not able to flee the situation physically. This might be the person who can’t give you a straight answer or who cracks a joke at an inappropriate time. That’s usually my response to difficult situations. A flight response doesn’t mean you’re uncooperative, it can be that you are scared.


Freeze is the least understood of the fear responses. Have you ever asked someone a question and all you got back was a blank stare? This is a classic freeze response. They are not ignoring you, they are giving you what they can and in that moment what they can give you is nothing. A fear response doesn’t mean you are defiant, it can mean that you’re scared.

I hope that this has been helpful by increasing your understanding of what trauma is, how it impacts a person, and how it informs their behavior. I hope that you feel like you are better equipped to connect with hurting people so you can be an active agent in bringing healing to their lives.

Here are some additional resources if you’d like to learn more about trauma.

This post first appeared on Ryan’s Blog.

The “Yes” Jar

Would you love to have a simple parenting tool you can start implementing right away that will help you build trust with your kids? There is one simple word that can make a huge difference… “YES!”

An easy way to begin giving our kids more yes’s is to make a Yes Jar. Here’s what you need:


  • Stickers

  • Temporary tattoos

  • Healthy snacks such as granola bars, nuts, fruit leather, beef jerky

  • Fun treats such as cookies, suckers, gum

  • Coupons for connecting activities such as playing a game with mom/dad, a back rub, etc

  • Popsicle sticks with the names of fridge items like cheese sticks,fruit, veggie

  • Whatever else you are willing to say yes to ANYTIME your kids ask

How does it work?

Start out by gathering your supplies. Toys from the dollar store or leftovers from a birthday party goodie bag, as well as the always convenient amazon, are a great place to start. When you get snacks it is important to find a balance between fun and healthy.  It’s great to use organic suckers and naturally sweetened gum, but bubble gum and cookies can be a fun treat too. Once you fill your jar, tell your kids about it and be willing to say yes anytime they ask

Have fun saying yes and building trust in a new way!


Q: If I do this with my kids they will drive me crazy asking nonstop! Would it still work if I put limits on when they can ask and how many times?

A: We would discourage putting too many limits on it and therefore making it a battle ground. Some limits you might put on it are a bedtime or limiting the size and number of things in the jar.

Q: I have a lot of kids. That sounds expensive to keep a jar full of things all the time!  How do you do this without spending a fortune?

A: It all depends on how much and what you put in your jar.  We only fill up our jar once a day when the kids go to bed, and then when it is empty it is empty.  When you first start using the yes jar, your kids will ask you for something A LOT!  They want to see if you will really say yes EVERY time they ask.  So, at first it may cost a little more to fill it up, but as they begin to trust that you will really say yes you will see the asking slow down.

Q: My kids are not very good eaters, so we don’t snack a lot between meals. What if my kids ask for something to eat just before a meal?

A: This can be tricky because many of our kids have food “issue” and we struggle to get them to eat or they want to eat constantly.  The snacks in the ‘yes’ jar are put there by you, so choose wisely.  Mostly nutritious foods will ensure that even if they ask just before dinner, you are okay saying yes because it is healthy.

Q: If I say yes too much, my kids will expect me to say yes all the time, and sometimes I need to say no.  Why is it important for me to say yes?

A: It seems counter-intuitive, but by saying yes more often we can actually help our kids accept our no more easily. Taking the time to examine why we say no so often can help us connect with our kids. Watch this video where Amy Monroe talks about building trust by saying yes.

This post also appears on Empowered to Connect

Connection Jars

Connection Jar

Finding ways to connect with your kids can be hard. Connection jars can give you a quick and easy way to add connecting activities to your everyday routine. Set a certain time each day and allow each of your kids to pick an activity from the jar. Spending just 5 minutes each day connecting with your kids can make the world of difference in your relationship.


  • A quart size jar, a small pot, or anything big enough to hold large size popsicle/craft sticks.
  • 10-20 craft sticks
  • Sharpie marker (ultra fine tip)
  • 100 ways to nurture and connect handout
  • your imagination
  • optional: 3 different colors of washi tape, markers, or paint


  • Find 10-20 connecting activities that you can do with your child.  Try to pick a variety of activities that you and your child can both enjoy. Use the 100 ways to nurture and connect as a starting point.
  • Optional: sort the activities into 3 groups based on amount of time to complete
  • Write activities on the craft sticks.  
  • Optional: Use the washi tape, markers, or paint to differentiate between the groups (ie: green = 5-10 min, blue=15-20 min, orange=20 min +)
  • Put the sticks into the jar and allow your kids to pick activities to do with you.

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