Children who have experienced trauma need help to build a collection of successes, rather than a list of failures.
Trauma by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Feelings of intense fear, helplessness, loss of control and threat of death characterize it. Trauma can overwhelm a person mentally, emotionally and physically.
However, trauma is not limited to surviving life-threatening experiences. For a young child, trauma may be experienced in the form of separation from parents, looking into the eyes of a depressed mother, or being in a household with a high level of marital tension. For an adolescent, chronic stress and trauma may come from the incessant teasing of peers or taking care of the needs of an alcoholic parent. For an adult, chronic loneliness, the loss of a pet, or a constant sense of shame or failure may have the same impact.
If we are lucky, we have had good healthy, loving, and nurturing carers when we were infants. These good carers would have been consistently available to us and helped us to lay the foundation for the optimal development of our brain and nervous system. They would also have helped us to develop a healthy view of ourselves, how to relate to other people, and how to cope with the world. Unfortunately, many maltreated, abused and/or traumatised children have not experienced such secure attachment to their parents.
While we all want to move beyond trauma, the part of our brain that is controlled by trauma and helps us to survive, is not good in denial. A Child’s brain who underwent trauma is always looking for danger. When children act out their pain, rather than suppressing it, they are often diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Attachment Disorder, or Conduct Disorder. However, it is important to remember that these labels are just parts of the whole person’s self-protective mechanism. Nevertheless, we cannot change the behavior without treating the underlying issues – the trauma.
To help children develop good attachment and to reconnect, carers/parents need to be in tune with the child or the young person. According to Dan Hughes, a clinical psychologist, being playful, accepting and empathic are the keys to reconnecting and becoming “in tune” with the child or the young person. Home should be the place where children and parents can relax, feel safe, laugh and cry, hope and dream. When home is functioning well, it has the characteristics of PACE (Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy).
When we engage respectfully and genuinely in this way, we aim to increase the emotional bond between the child and the carer and provide alternatives to the child’s previous experiences.
We use PACE to:
help the child feel connected.
help you and the child feel understood.
build trust between you.
build security between you.
An open, warm attitude of unconditional love and joy is the basis on which an infant’s positive development will flourish. As children grow up, however, this attitude seems to decrease, but if we continue to keep the PACE attitude throughout childhood it will enhance the child parent relationship.
Bessel. V. D. K (2014). The body keeps the scores. Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. UK: Penguin books.
Hughes D. A (2009) Attachment Focused Parenting. Effective Strategies to Care for children. New York, London: W.W.Norton & Company.