WILTON — Twenty-nine people from various constituencies around town came together virtually last week for the inaugural meeting of the Wilton Coalition for Youth.

The organization’s focus is to work toward preventing substance misuse and fostering the mental health and well-being of Wilton’s young people and their families. At its meeting on Nov. 12, however, much of the discussion focused on trauma and its wide-ranging effects from the individual to the general community.

The main takeaway was that the key to helping children lies in first working with their parents and recognizing the effects of both major traumas and the build-up of innumerable more common traumas faced by people of all ages.

Chaired by Andrea Leonardi, Wilton’s assistant superintendent for student services, the group heard from social workers Linda Rost and Bonnie Rumilly, of the Fairfield County Trauma Response Team.

“You cannot help children to develop their skills and resilience unless you start with their parents,” Rost said.

She said her team learned that after the school shooting in Newtown. “We made a decision that if a child was to be accepted for treatment we had to take the parents, too. You cannot go home to a house where you’re not safe, be it from trauma, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, whatever.”

Rost and Rumilly explained that while “big traumas” are events like a school shooting, a fire or a sexual assault, “little traumas” weigh heavily as they build up over a person’s life.

“They are the messages you get from your parents, from the environment,” Rost said, listing things like how attractive one is, how smart a student is, being able to fit in at high school, questioning sexual orientation.

“It’s not only the event itself but how you receive it,” she said, adding that something may be traumatic for one person but not for another.

“It’s important to think about for kids and teens,” Rumilly said. “Little traumas build up and pile up and that’s when we start to see behaviors or we start to see kids have a difficult time. It’s the buildup over time,” she said, and it is important to know what led to a particular behavior or reaction.

Rost said these little traumas can lie buried and fester over time, so that when there is one adverse event, it becomes “the last straw” that leads people to seek treatment. She used the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of an event that can cause past problems to emerge, increasing anger, anxiety or depression.

“COVID has people coming in with issues that are 20 and 30 years old,” Rost said. “We’ve never been through anything remotely like this.”

“Even in a functioning family issues bubble up,” Rumilly said. “We all have to recognize our baselines are off because of COVID right now. … None of us are functioning at our baselines — that is also trauma. … The longer the instability and insecurity goes on it is triggering to people.

Rost emphasized that “when you respond to trauma, your not necessarily responding to the immediate event but also to past triggers. That informs a lot of how we do respond.”

Coping skills

Substance abuse, Rumilly said, plays into this because people — children and adults — may use it as a coping mechanism.

Children, she said, won’t always say what they are feeling but they may act out. They may express their feelings through an art project or aggressive behavior on the playground.

The best thing parents can do, she said, is to start a conversation with their child. Children build resilience by having coping skills, and those they get from their parents.

“Kids wonder how their parents are coping,” Rumilly said. “Are they having a bottle of wine at night? Are they getting angry?”

Leonardi said in communities with high expectations — among both parents and children — a response to a trauma may exhibit itself in hyper-vigilance, perhaps in sports or academics.

“Some maladaptive responses are prized,” she said, such as being an exceptional student. “Those kids are processing trauma by holding on too tightly to the things they are praised for.”

Participating in the meeting was the Rev. Shannon White, pastor of Wilton Presbyterian Church, who cited the “need for people to own their humanity. … it’s OK, we are all human. To own our mistakes as adults, it can’t be understated.”

“It’s a challenge for a lot of adults to have that awareness,” said Vanessa Elias, who leads a parent support group through the National Association for Mental Illness-Child Action Network. “It starts with the parents in terms of awareness.”

Leonardi said parents have to be aware of the messages they send, intentional or not. “The parent who does the child’s science project for them tells the child their science project is not good enough. Those are the teeny tiny traumas that add up. ‘I have to overcompensate for my unworthiness.’ The messages we send are not likely what we intend.”

Next steps

The coalition discussed positive ways to reach out to parents to further communication on substance abuse among young people. The group also discussed developing a directory of coalition members to connect with parents seeking assistance. A third goal is to develop a directory of crisis resources and identifying ways to share it.

Some resources are:

Kids In Crisis — 203-661-1911/kidsincrisis.org.

CT Youth Mobile Crisis Services — call 2-1-1 or visit 211ct.org.

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. Visit crisistextline.org.

Fairfield County Trauma Response Team — fctrt.org.