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Milwaukee's Trauma in Our Community Conference Aims to 'Inform and Unite'

When you take your child to the doctor, she or he might be pretty skilled at seeing what’s wrong and figuring out what’s causing the physical symptoms. But when it comes to behavioral issues, we are beginning to learn that the causes might not always be obvious, but could instead have been caused by issues in the past.

People who work with children are starting to take toxic stress into account when it comes to helping them through a technique known as trauma-informed care. 

To discuss the advancements in trauma-informed care, Dr. James Henry and author Paul Tough will both be delivering keynote addresses at this week's Trauma in Our Communityconference. The conference is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee's School of Continuing Education, and will take place on Thursday and Friday at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center.

Dr. Henry says that trauma-informed care starts with understanding that behavior is sometimes the result of latent or repeated trauma, especially in children.  "Too often we see these children as 'mentally ill' or 'behaviorally oppositional, when in reality, it's not what's wrong with them, it's what happened to them," he explains.

Dr. Henry's research involves the intersection of secondary trauma and stress, which can happen in the home. This is important,  he says, because the home is supposed to be a place of love and understanding for children. When children with traumatic home lives grow up, Dr. Henry says they encounter more issues in relationships and trust than children from lower stress households. 

Understanding how trauma affects children is also relevant in the classroom. Author Paul Tough says that outbursts and bad behavior that point to trauma have the potential to be overlooked in order to deal with unruly students. 

"In any school, whether it's a high poverty or low poverty school, there are always some kids that have had very stressful beginnings. And those kids are the ones who, often if you're the teacher, are the ones who are most like a handful," he says.  "They're often hard to deal with, they' re stressed out, they're often confrontational. And those kids, I think, need extra attention." 

Both Dr. Henry and Tough say they're hopeful for a future of more trauma-informed medical care. In a city like Milwaukee, the organizers of this week's conference hope to inform participants and begin to break what Tough refers to as a cycle of trauma.

"One thing that you see in a lot of families, in a lot of neighborhoods, is that this cycle of trauma and stress can persist from generation to generation," Tough says. "When you grow up in a really stressful situation it's hard to deal with all of the demands of being a parent."

Dr. James Henry Ph.D. will deliver two keynote speeches this week to the Trauma in Our Community conference in reference to his work and the connection to the medical community. Paul Tough will speak about his book, Helping Children Succeed, and the intersection of trauma and education on Thursday.