The impact of childhood trauma and how it can be addressed

If you work with children and young people you will have heard a lot about the impact of childhood trauma, and will probably know about trauma-informed approaches to supporting vulnerable children. The Children’s Commissioners Report on Vulnerable Children highlights the scale of the issue and the consequences of childhood trauma.

No child is an isolate, everyone has a family and it is in the family that the child develops and adjusts to the world around them, yet we often treat children and adults as isolated individuals. Our Time is dedicated to working systemically rather than individually, helping to create safe environments where the children of parents with a mental illness can learn to ask for help and develop trusting relationships.

Research indicates that the healing power of current relationships can mitigate the impact of past experiences and allow the traumatised person to recover a sense of safety, and with that, the capacity for better emotional regulation. This means that we need to pay much more attention to the quality of helping relationships and rely much less on control mechanisms such as exclusions, disciplinary tactics or medication. We know that having someone you can trust is life saving when you are in difficulties and we know that it is hard to trust if you have had experiences of adults as scary, uncaring or unreliable. This is the experience of many children of parents with a mental illness. We work to help parents and teachers to provide environments that are physically and psychologically safe to help the children to develop resilience because we cannot ‘fix it’.

The principles of safety and collaboration, hope, empowerment and support which underpin the work of Our Time have been shown to create increased resilience. We argue strongly for less fear about asking about trauma (even it is phrased differently) in a respectful and curious way, engaging with the child to help them to understand their situation and to elicit their thoughts on what would help. Teachers tell us that they don’t feel confident or competent in talking to children about their family situation. We train school staff and provide a variety of resources to help them work with these children without exposing them. In our family workshops many parents say they particularly value the absence of judgement and the assumption that the family and the children and young people have the skills to help each other.

Training and supervision provide staff with the tools to use trust-based, collaborative relationships to support people and help them to find in themselves the resources to manage their life situations. Many professionals are uncomfortable when they feel they cannot offer a solution but this is often not possible and, even if it were, it might be unhelpful and unsuccessful. Most mental health screening remains bio-medical and non-psychological and this approach is one in which the person, family or child are seen as passive recipients of care rather than actively involved in it.

The voices of our beneficiaries say more about the essence of our work than anything we write. When I recently visited a Kidstime Workshop, a mother said to me: “This is the first time I felt I had a hand in my own care.”

A young person told me she got a different image of her father when she saw him supporting and advising other parents. She said she saw him as a competent and wise person who had the resources to help others and this enabled her to see beyond his illness and to have a more whole picture of the person he is.