Julie Beem of the Attachment and Trauma Network joins Tom and Patrick for a conversation about her experience adopting and raising a child from China, her role as Executive Director, and their annual conference.

More About Our Guest

Julie Beem has been the Executive Director of the Attachment & Trauma Network since 2009. Julie lives in the Atlanta area and is the mom to four and grandmother to 2. Her youngest daughter, adopted internationally more than 20 years ago was the reason she found support and education from the other parents at ATN. Under Julie’s leadership, ATN has grown to reach families, schools and communities around the world. In 2016 ATN was given an Angel in Adoption award to honor the organization’s contributions to adoptive families across the US. Julie is a frequent speaker at adoption/foster parenting conferences as well as events focused on early childhood trauma. Julie has an undergrad in English education and an MBA with emphasis in marketing and strategic planning. Her true passion is making life easier for children impacted by trauma and the families who love them. Paying it forward has become the cornerstone of Julie’s work through ATN.

Note: While we’re currently going through the approval process with a number of podcast distributors, you can listen to this episode through the player above and read the transcript of our conversation below.


Patrick

Our very special guest today is Julie Beem, the Executive Director of the Attachment and Trauma Network since 2009. She lives in the Atlanta area and is the mother to four and grandmother to two. Her youngest daughter was adopted internationally more than 20 years ago, which was the reason she found support and education from the other parents ATN. Under Julie‘s leadership has grown to reach families, schools, and communities around the world.

Welcome Julie!

 

Julie

It’s good to be here Patrick, thanks for having me.

 

Patrick
Absolutely. Let’s get right into it: Tell us about the mission of the Attachment and Trauma Network.

 

Julie
Sure. At the Attachment and Trauma Network (we call ourselves ATN for short) our mission is really to support and help children impacted by trauma through their families, their schools, and their communities. Our focus is not on providing direct care for children. We’re not clinicians, we don’t do child care, per se. We help the children by educating and supporting their parents, by educating and supporting the educators that work with them, caregivers who work with them, and the community people who come in contact with children who may have been impacted by trauma.

 

Patrick
And how did you come to this work?

 

Julie
I came to this work by complete accident on my part. I think a lot of people fall into trauma-informed work in this way. I am a mom to four, and our youngest daughter we adopted from China in 1998. She had been in an orphanage for two years, and we did not know what we did not know. So as parents, as experienced parents, we had an advantage over a lot of parents that I have since worked with through ATN in that week we could tell something was not quite right pretty quickly. We knew that she wasn’t doing normal toddler things, developmentally, and of course we knew they were going to be some delays in terms of physical development, but there were a lot of emotional things that started happening early on that we’re red flags as to, “uh oh,” something’s up here.

Back in 1998, there wasn’t a lot of information about the impacts of trauma, the impacts of—specifically for my daughter—around neglect. There’s so much more information out there now. But there was, thank goodness, the Internet and its dial-up mode. That was where I ultimately started looking for answers because my local medical professionals and therapy professionals really didn’t know. In addition to a lot of other things, I found this group of parents who with the encouragement of their clinicians and their doctors had sort of banded together and then were talking about researching and bringing forth any information they could find about attachment disorders and about trauma although connecting attachment disorders with trauma didn’t really happen even for clinicians and medical researchers until a few years after that. It was sort of supposed.

 

Patrick
It sounds like the research was sort of done in the university of American Online before it was a part of the academy.

 

Julie
Yes, we were definitely ahead of that curve is the best way to say that. Again we didn’t know what we didn’t know. But as I started piecing things together personally for my daughter, I was led to therapists and strategies and at support from this early ATN network, which started making a difference because that was making life better for us and also training us as parents how to view behaviors that sometimes felt incredibly personal to us, the sort of rejecting of typical nurturing and loving and “pushing away” behaviors. Once we were able to learn about that, we were able to start on the path of learning how to do that differently. Now looking back some 20 some years later I was looking through a trauma informed lens, even though the language wasn’t there yet.

 

Tom
Yes, I wanted to hear more about the importance of community specifically in dealing with trauma and I also wanted to know, perhaps before that, explain what you mean by attachment. Some of our listeners may not be familiar with what that means in terms of human relations.

 

Julie
Attachment is generally the language used around the first early bond with the primary caregiver. You build attachment with a child early on which sets in motion their ability to develop resilience. The outcome of being securely enough attached are twofold: It sets you up to be more resilient because your self-identity is that you can have some kind of impact. You have some confidence because of the care you got early on which is baked into your system. I’m talking very lay terms because I’m a mom, not a clinician or a researcher.

 

Tom
Friends of mine adopted a daughter from China right around the time you did, and she has turned out to have quite a lot of challenges. Social challenges in life as well. One of the things they said on the adoption forms was “…can eat a whole egg”, which at the time sounded funny. But hearing you talk about it, I realize that if this was one of the salient characteristics of the girl, then she was not getting all of the care that she needed.

 

Julie
Right. Right. There are so many things that happen if you don’t get that attachment early enough. We get the question a lot at ATN, “can a child attach later on?” As a toddler or a school aged child. The answer is yes, however, like with anything else that has to do with brain development, if you don’t do it at the developmental step when it’s supposed to happen, then it takes more work. My daughter has a pretty strong attachment style at this point, but it’s been a hard 20 years. But the two things I wanted to say about attachment is that it helps you build that resilience, which is critical to our survival, and that the other thing is it helps you to regulate yourself. The act of a parent or caregiver meeting your needs over and over again is calming and soothing, and you learn to self-soothe because someone let you “cry it out” in the bed or that someone made you “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” but by having your needs met, you come away with a view that is baked into you that you will have your needs met, you can make a difference in the world, if I need something all I need to do is ask. It’s not a cognitive thought you have, it’s built into lower parts of your brain that some people would call your personality. But it’s that more healthy attachment. And when you don’t have those things, you have a greater level of struggle. That’s pretty much what I mean by attachment.

 

Patrick
So it sounds like over the past 20 years, I could imagine, one of the hardest parts is that you don’t understand or there’s no research or documentation describing you’re not having the experience with your child and that your child is not having the experience with you that you had expected. Can you talk about what it was like to be in the dark for that time?

 

Julie
It was very isolating, and that was a part of the reason that ATN became important to me as a person, a mom. I found peer support there. I found people experiencing similar things to what I was experiencing. No two people experience the exact same trauma. But there were similarities. There was support. What I started to do on this journey with these moms and dads was to make real cyber relationships before it was cool to have cyber relationships, because we were finding each other all over the country, and we would share information that our local and national research was giving us. From that, all of us were contacted on a daily basis by other families needing help and looking for answers. When I really started to get involved, the founder of the network was spending about 8 hours a day on the phone with families. It was pretty intense. So we started to put some business structure around it. Who could answer phone calls, who can distribute information? How can we build a website of information? And the organization has been 100% virtual from that point on as the technology has allowed us more and more virtual access. We figured the technology out. Around 2015, after talking about it for a good 5-10 years, we had a pocket of educators who were also parents of children who had been traumatized throughout the country who were all talking to me, but didn’t know one another. And they would say to me, “all these things I’m learning about how to help my own child overcome their struggles seem to be working really well with my 1st graders or my 8th graders.” So we got together and talked about how we can help spread the word among educators. The other thing that was happening for members of ATN is that they would get a good grasp on their parenting and get some resources and clinicians who could help them, then they would send their children to school and sometimes would not have a very good outcome from that. They were always asking us how to help the school and what they should ask for in terms of services. So we literally pulled together a group of five of us in Los Angeles in 2014. We had a lunch that lasted 4 hours because we couldn’t stop talking. We were so excited about how we were going to do this and what our approach was. We used our network to find other people that were doing “trauma-sensitive” work because at the time that was the term used even more than “trauma-informed” in schools. We put together an audio summit that came out first in 2015 and then another one in 2017 where we pulled together interviews from about 20 organizations from across the country who were doing things in school settings at all sorts of levels, and the most interesting thing to me was that most of these people didn’t know the other people were doing this work. So it was a discovery for everyone: These people in Washington state are doing this, people in Massachusetts are doing this and this preschool in Kansas City is doing this. There was all of this really good information and networking that happened between those entities. And from that we created the Trauma-Sensitive Schools program and our conference that we’ve been doing for that last four years.

 

Patrick
You make an interesting distinction between the early work you were doing in “trauma-sensitive” care and “trauma-informed” care. I’m sure that every member of that early organization had a different way of describing what they were doing or a different moniker for the methodology they were using. Today a lot of people use the term “trauma-informed care.” From what I understand, there’s a very specific definition of what that means. What does it mean for the Attachment and Trauma Network?

 

Julie
For us, we harken back to what SAMHSA has defined and which we affectionately refer to as the “Four Rs.” You realize the prevalence and widespread impact that trauma has, which brings into work the Adverse Childhood Experiences studies (ACEs) that are important to understand within that R.

 

Tom
Would you like to talk about what those Rs are? Relate, Reason, Regulate?

 

Julie
Those are the Rs that come out of Dr. Bruce Perry’s work. The Rs in SAMHSA are: Realizing the prevalence; Recognizing the symptoms; Responding in a trauma-informed way in your policies, practices, and behaviors; and Resisting Re-traumatization. Understand what you can do in your environment that might re-traumatize someone, and then avoid that, building the system. The Rs you mentioned are built into treatment models about how to help children who are impacted by trauma.

 

Tom
Having a meltdown?

 

Julie
Yeah, that are having the behavioral symptoms of being traumatized. Exactly. It’s important to know what to do. The reason we define it so broadly with SAMHSA at ATN is we really believe that trauma-informed schools, trauma-informed systems of any kind need to trauma inform themselves in a systematic way, from the top down in their processes and procedures as well as in their classrooms and what their educators and counselors and other educators are trained to do. Quite frankly, trauma is contagious. Teachers who are helping students who have experienced trauma can get a secondary trauma from being empathetic and having their own emotional health by knowing the children’s traumatic stories and working with that on a daily basis. Unless you have a system that realizes how prevalent the trauma is, recognizes what to do about it, and responds in a systematic way in a trauma-informed cultural way, your setting up an individual teacher or parent for failure because they don’t have any place to get their own emotional health needs taken care and get more tools and other people to support the situation if it gets too big for them.

 

Tom
I think that’s very true. People often discount the importance and pain of listening to someone who has gone through a terrible experience. And I think they also forget that teaching is a profession that demands a lot of emotions. It also involves empathic people. Teaching and helping children can be a real trigger for people and is a big cause of burnout, whether personal trauma or secondary trauma.

 

Julie
Yes, we’ve had conversations about helping schools. At one point we thought about launching into that in professional development who are organization days and setting up curriculum which is really outside of the scope of what ATN is. But as we were having those conversations one of the things we felt really strongly about was that we weren’t going to just teach a teacher the five things, for example, they needed to know to become a trauma-informed teacher because we were really doing that teacher a disservice by not having a safety net in place for that teaching and maybe leading to their burnout faster if this wasn’t going to be a school-embarked endeavor. We think its really critical that they do not do this alone.

 

Patrick
I think trauma-informed care is not unique among considerations in teaching, but it’s something that crosses the border between the classroom and the home. I’m curious as someone with experience in the home dealing with someone who has been affected by trauma and someone who provides guidance to educators with how they can deal with their students who have been affected by trauma. What are the differences between identifying and responding to trauma in the home as opposed to in the classroom.

 

Julie
In my home as opposed to the classroom, I think the biggest difference is that in my home, my husband and I had to deal with this 24/7. It’s not like we could send her home at the end of the school day. We would look at her and say, “we don’t want her to grow up and have this life that has all of this emotional turmoil in it. It was heavier as a parent, I think. The flip of that is that not all parents have the advantages that we had, walking into his having three children prior, learning what the literature calls “good enough parenting” (that’s a funny term, isn’t it?). Having been good enough parents before, we had a pretty good skill set. Not a lot of parents have that or their own support system. They may have been the cause of the trauma and may not have been able to stop what traumatized the child. It’s harder because we build in a lot of guilt and ultimately shame if we’re not careful around what’s happening. Some educators can feel guilty about things they’ve done in the past that they did not know were trauma-informed until they started learning, but it’s not the same level of that shame that can then become unhealthy. It’s trickier for parents. It’s a lot trickier.

 

Patrick
It almost seems like a lot of it depends on guilt, but also anticipation. Whereas a “good enough parent” in the past has the knowledge of what it’s like to be a parent and can reflect on what it was like to go through something with a child and come out the other side seeing improvement and seeing that every state is truly temporary while someone who has not experience with it might look at a situation and say, “is there really a light at the end of this tunnel? Does this get any better?”

 

Julie
I think that, generally in this country, one of the things that, on behalf of parents, we don’t help parents with any global skill kind of information. They’re on their own, so they parent the way they were parented, or decide that was a bad idea and do just the opposite. There really isn’t any guidance. What I’ve found working with parents that were parenting a child who was traumatized or a child who was adopted is that if you give them permission to do something different, most of them will give it a shot. I think there is a lot of value in trying to wrap around parents and arm them with the information because once they understand what trauma is and what it looks like and how we’re not going to be able to punish or “consequence” a child out of it, we can nurture and help them learn to regulate and all the other trauma-informed approaches that a teacher would use. I haven’t seen many parents throw their arms up and say they can’t do it.

 

Patrick
You spoke earlier about, in defining trauma-informed care, about avoiding retraumatization. That seems like it’s at the heart of trauma-informed care because, from what I understand, the student or child who has been affected by trauma is engaging with a parent or teacher already having been traumatized. So it’s almost like the work of trauma-informed care is, essentially avoiding that re-traumatization. Can you talk practically about what that looks like in the classroom?

 

Julie
It’s a little trickier than what it sounds like on the surface. Of course we are going to resist re-traumatizing kids. If they have a fear of dogs, we’re not going to bring dogs around them to bark and scare them. But the truth is, with a classroom full of 25 students, the chances of you knowing every single child’s trauma triggers is pretty slim. Nor do you have the capacity or want to take the learning time away to really know that. So it is a little tougher than saying we’re going to avoid re-traumatizing them. We have to look for the signs through the behaviors, and because the behaviors are often not what we expect them to be or would get emotional about ourselves, we have to look through a trauma lens. My daughter had some very complex situations because she is a child of neglect. She had a number of sensory-based issues in addition the behaviors she would exhibit when she was feeling overwhelmed. So we literally did detective work, and I was at the forefront of that detective work because the school was saying to me that she melted down every day in reading and that she just didn’t want to do reading. That was their answer. But there were some times when she didn’t melt down in reading, but we can’t figure out why and those days she reads perfectly, so we know she can read. We think she was just trying to avoid it. I thought it wasn’t that she was just trying to avoid it.

Well the long story short is that through piecing together her whole day like mapping it out, I discovered that the days she rode the bus to school the air brakes on the bus were a sensory insult, and she had a lot of auditory things going. She would enter the school right where the bell was ringing right over her head. She would walk down the hall and there would be announcements. On the days I dropped her off, because the timing was different she went in a different door, didn’t hear the bell, didn’t hear the announcements, and reading was one of the first things they did. She was more calm because she hadn’t had all those sensory insults. That’s not everybody’s story, but that was the detective work behind answering why she melted down sometimes during reading and why sometimes she didn’t. And that’s kind of a common thing for children of trauma. We as adults that don’t even experience trauma know this is true. There are some days when I can get 40 things done and have a really good day, and there are some days when I get bad news or am not physically on my game and I’m not able to do those things. It’s magnitudes harder for children of trauma because they also don’t have a way to explain that to you.

 

Tom
People also forget that traumatic experiences when you affect the way your brain is physically able to handle things. It’s not just a part of the temperament of the child but has more to do with the physiology of the child, having lived through bad experiences.

 

Julie
Exactly. And I know there are a lot of brilliantly trauma-informed educators out there that are doing things like building cozy corners that kids can take a break in or do things that are physical. That’s where Dr. Perry’s work comes in, talking about rhythmic movements and the physical movement activities that are really important for kids to get reset in their brains. Like pushing their arms against the wall, giving themselves some pressure. Fidgeting. There’s so many tools and the thing about the tools is, yes they’re important, but no they’re not for everyone. Everyone has their own tool. My staff knows well that I am a giant pen-clicker. I need ink pens that have the little clicker. And sometimes in meetings they say, “we can hear you clicking.” That’s my thing. If I could find a quieter fidget and still get that same comfort out of, I probably would use it. The point is that all of those tools are fantastic, but the way we use them, making sure the child has the choice of what works best for them, empowering them, encouraging them, giving them the skills to say when something helps or doesn’t, that’s really good for all children, but for traumatized children it’s great.

 

Tom
Hey Patrick, here’s your chance to come out about your Zippo.

 

Patrick
Oh yes. My fidget is an old Zippo lighter that’s never worked since I’ve owned it. And every time Tom and I would meet, I would open it and close it and flick it, and he’d say what are you doing there.

 

Julie
It helps keep your attention on what’s happening, and that’s important because the teachers obviously want our prefrontal cortex to be focused on them and on the lesson and what they’re learning, even if that means I’m going to sit on a rolling ball or stand in a corner or I’m going to bounce. My daughter literally learned her multiplication tables by bouncing on an exercise ball and they were taped around the room and she would bounce from place to place and repeat them. And there was something about it that was useful to her.

 

Patrick
I’m really compelled by this picture of the trauma-informed educator and even the trauma-informed parent because both of these jobs—being an educator and being a parent—I hear, are very difficult to do. I’m not a K-12 educator and I’m not yet a parent—it’s coming soon—but the idea of these two jobs is so overwhelming, and I hear from working educators all the time that it’s already such a hard job and you want to throw this thing called “trauma informed care” or “social emotional learning” on top of what I’m already doing? The picture you’re painting is so much more hopeful and engaging. The teacher is a detective and an engineer of these learning experiences that are more expansive. Rather than demanding more patience and empathy out of these teachers who are already exhausted. Really it’s a puzzle to solve. It’s a mystery to come to the bottom of. And the result is you’re not finding a murderer, you’re making it easier for someone to learn and to build relationships and to interact with other people.

 

Julie
The one thing we do teach and try to convey is that a trauma-informed school—culture and structure—isn’t an add-on. It’s good for all students. So doing things that you would do to help traumatized students build better, deeper relationships or to learn to self-regulate are skills that are valuable to all the students. The students who haven’t been impacted by trauma, they come already able to relate to the teacher, give them high-fives and hugs, make friends on the playground, and do all those healthy things that are developmentally at the right age. Same way with regulation. They are able to calm themselves down and switch their focus from one attention to another. Being taught those as skills because the other students have been impacted by trauma doesn’t hurt the children who don’t need it. In fact it enhances their feel of the classroom being a safe, collaborative place where my teacher cares about us. It sends all those little brains that signal. Who doesn’t want that signal in their classroom.

 

Patrick
I do want to move onto talking about the Fourth Annual Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools Online Conference, and we know that’s coming up pretty soon.

 

Julie
Yes. February 15th through the 18th.

 

Patrick
Tell us a little about the format, who some of your guests are going to be, some of the things you’re excited about.

 

Julie
Sure. We are excited because we have quite the lineup. We’re a little disappointed because we have to do it online. This is normally an in-person conference. Last year we had 1700 educators and each year it has grown and each year we have done to make it a more relational kind of event. We have a whole self-care area where teachers can get nurtured, but they can also pick up information about how to help the people in their world—either the other educators if they’re an administrator or the children in terms of that care that is needed. That’s a little harder to do online but we are giving it our best shot. We have picked a really interactive platform and we have some events that are happening throughout the conference. We are especially excited about the lineup of our keynotes. I get up every day and think, gosh, every single day of this 4 day conference is going to have a keynote that will give us so much information and things to think about. We’re going to start off with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson who is a PhD social worker who has written numerous books, many of which are best sellers, with Dr. Dan Siegel. Initially the books are mostly for parents, but the translation is so rich for educators. The Whole Brain Child, The Power of Showing Up, they are attachment in their underpinnings and aren’t necessarily focused on what happens when you’re traumatized, but are focused on good practices for helping children develop their strong emotional health.

We also have Ingrid Cockhren who is an expert in racial trauma so we’re going to delve into that whole racial-generational-historic trauma.

On Wednesday, we’re going to hear from Dr. Melissa Sadin who is an expert in this field who has worked with us extensively at ATN. She is going to talk with us about some work she has been doing in cultural competency and how that aligns with trauma-informed work.

Then on Friday, Dr. Mona Delahooke is going to speak to us specifically on behaviors. She’s a dynamic person to teach us about how to interpret behaviors, what we might be misinterpreting about behaviors through a trauma-informed lens.

But I think the most exciting thing is that on Monday afternoon we have a special guest, and that is Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. Those of us who have spent the past 20 years of our lives in the attachment and trauma world worship Dr. van der Kolk. There’s no other way to put that. He is a psychiatrist whose background is he got PTSD in the diagnostic manual and since then has done a lot of research around the concept of developmental trauma and developmental trauma disorder. The folks working in his organization and around him were responsible for the development of the arch model which is one of the treatment models that the National Child Traumatic Stress Network considers trauma-informed and appropriate for children struggling with trauma. He’s just a fascinating, very empathic person who wants to see this work done and done well. So we’re in for a treat on Monday afternoon with Dr. van der Kulk.

 

Patrick
How do people sign up? What’s the easiest way to make sure they have a seat?

 

Julie
The easiest way is virtually because their seat will be virtual, too. So our website, attachtrauma.org/conference, which will take you right to the registration page. It’s only $250. The two things we did for this conference being virtual is that we halved the price and then we elongated the number of days so that the time that the sessions are running is shorter. It’s in the middle of the day to hopefully work across time zones best for people. There will be less hours per day that you’ll be in session but it allows you to have more access. Then the other thing that’s happening is that everything will be recorded, and the recordings will be available for 90 days after. So the educators who have to teach through part of this because some get the week off and some get the Monday off for presidents day, which can be a challenge with substitutes and all of the myriad things that are happening to educators right now. Everyone will have access for 90 days. The cool thing about attending it in person—the important thing—is that you get to ask questions and do all of the interacting and collecting CEUs as well.

 

Patrick
I just have a couple more questions for you that go back into the meat of our conversation. One is you have talked to so many interesting people, you’ve gotten your heroes to come to your conferences, you’ve written and presented and organized and you’ve come a really long way in terms of what you know about trauma-informed care and attachment and how you can identify it and respond to it. What advice would you give yourself on the first day you brought your adopted daughter home?

 

Julie
That’s a great question, Patrick. I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked that question. One of the first pieces of advice that I would give to myself is to not give up, to not necessarily take the first advice that you receive, but to weigh out what your intuition and gut are telling you and what information you’re able to find. For me, back 20 years ago, it was very hard to find it. Now, I would say come to ATN, go to a variety of other sources. We’ve really tried to build the resource availability through ATN, primarily for parents but also for educators. We conceptually view ourselves as a tent that we want people to come into when they want the information and we’re constantly trying to figure out the best way to categorize information. We built a resource database recently that’s been our dream, to have a searchable ability to find clinicians across the country who are trauma-informed to help families in particular. So, go looking for the help and the support.

 

Patrick
One final question. And hopefully this question will change over time as the podcast changes over time because the question will no longer be relevant: what is going to be the first thing you do when we get the all-clear?

 

Julie
The first thing I’m personally going to do is take a vacation. Go somewhere. Go anywhere.

 

Tom
Leave the house.

 

Julie
Yes, because I work virtually and so I’ve been on the screen for months and months and a year now. I also can’t wait to get back to connecting with people both in ATN and people that we often speak to and present to. Because this work is so relational and relationships are hard to do on a screen. We do the best we can. But you just want to hug people again.

 

Patrick
Julie, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for joining us today. And we hope for all the best with the conference.

 

Tom
Yeah, good luck.

 

Patrick
We hope to talk with you soon.

 

Julie
Thank you both. And look forward to seeing everyone at our conference.

 

Tom
Thank you.