The impact of trauma is profound, long-lasting and pervasive. However brain neuroplasticity (Schore 1994; Seigel 2010) means that change is possible for both children and their carers.
Addressing safety issues is vital in reducing stress in families. For this reason working on primary trauma issues is the fundamental first step in the process of helping both parenting figures and the children they are caring for. For example, work with the mother in our quote needs to begin by helping her feel safer in her own home by addressing her son’s aggression. Although aggression needs to be understood as a defence against fear, children also need to hear a clear message that aggression is unacceptable.
A family poster that offers this message along with strategies to develop different ways of expressing their feelings by, for example, encouraging them to discharge increased adrenaline levels by running, jumping, trampolining etc. might help. Forward planning and support to help parents manage difficult behaviour in their children may help to increase safety for both children and parents. Safety for the mother in our quote, and therefore for her son, may have increased if the school had talked to the mother in advance of the report card being sent home, perhaps arranging a meeting where the child and parents were supported to share the report and think about a way forward.
What also helps is making sure that support and attention is offered to the ‘victim’ of any aggression. Parents may, understandably, be so busy trying to manage aggression from their ‘acting out’ child that their ‘acting in’ ‘too good’ child is in danger of being overlooked. Parenting figures who embrace developmental reparenting (Archer & Gordon 2013) can help their children begin to trust, feel safe and develop the healthy attachments that can lead to changes in their neuro-biological brain patterns and a reduce adrenaline and cortisol production.
Demonstrating empathy for the underlying reasons for children’s difficulties, offering opportunities to change unhealthy ways of interacting, and being clear about parental intentions before dealing with situations that might be misconstrued, helps children to feel understood and supported. This can, eventually, lead to a reduction in primary trauma re-enactment for both parent and child. However, in order to do this parental figures need to feel supported and understood themselves. They need to have their feelings and experiences validated and be offered support rather than criticism. While living with aggression and controlling behaviour is potentially traumatising, reducing parents’ feelings of isolation will help to protect them from its impact.
Parents also need support and opportunities for relaxation and space from the parenting task. Friends who might struggle to understand a traumatised child can still help by offering opportunities for non-parenting activities; meeting for a coffee can give parents an opportunity to feel they have worth outside of their role as parents. This can give parents the emotional space to be able to reflect on their children’s behavioural language. Recognising that a child’s behaviour is a reflection of their past traumas and not a reflection of them as parents is likely to increase parents’ feelings of self-worth and therefore reduce the emotional impact of the behaviour.
Secondary trauma arises from listening to and internalising children’s disclosures and expressions of distress, be these verbal or non-verbal as was the case in the child in our quote. It arises when parental figures are able to put themselves in their children’s shoes and understand not only what happened to them but also what it did to them. This is a very powerful healing tool for children. It helps them feel that they are accepted ‘warts and all’ and can lead to increased feelings of self-worth. Parents also need to find someone with whom they can share their experiences and feelings. Like their children they need praise for the good job they are doing and support to recognise that all parents make mistakes.
Vicarious trauma can be reduced when parents are encouraged to listen to and share their feelings with each other and when they find time for themselves as individuals and as a couple. If finding a child minder is difficult, supporting parents to spend time together after the children are in bed might be possible.
One parent could be encouraged to support the siblings of an angry, aggressive child to ensure that siblings have attention and the space to be able to share their feelings. This can help both parent and child feel a sense of belonging and increased understanding. In order to do this it might be necessary to challenge the myth that we need to treat children equally; instead we need to treat them uniquely and in a way that reflects each child’s needs, skills and talents.