Helping children feel safe after trauma
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Much of the challenging behaviour we see in children in care comes from feeling unsafe. The more they fear you’ll abandon them, the ‘naughtier’ they may seem. This is largely because of previous experiences of being unable to trust their parents.
The human brain can only develop through experiencing love and care in infancy. When a child has not been cared for properly, they don’t learn how to soothe themselves, and their language is slow to develop. This means it’s hard for them to ask for help, and because they may be upset most of the time, they’re likely to tantrum in frustration instead.
You can show a child they’re safe by being calm yourself. Even though their agitation can be infectious, take a deep breath and remember they’re not trying to upset you.
Read their cues
Learn to sensitively read their cues and respond accordingly. If you can understand and respond to the child’s needs, you show them you’re in charge and they don’t have to worry. It takes a while to learn what upsets them, and you’ll often get it wrong but it’s worthwhile to keep on trying.
Do life story work
A child needs to know who they are and be able to make sense of what has happened to them. This is why life story work is so important. Every child should know something about why they came into care. Of course, the story needs to be suitable for their age level.
Teach them how to play with others
Children in care often have difficulty forming friendships. Other children may not like them if they’re young for their age. Encourage them to play beside another child rather than with them. Cooperative play is a skill children in care may take longer to develop. They’re unlikely to be able to share or take turns. It’s not that they’re selfish, it’s just it’s as difficult for them to learn as playing the piano. Side-by-side play is enough to help a child feel calmer.
Let them speak up
Children feel safe when they can say what they need. However those who suffered early abuse and neglect may have poor language skills. There’s a lot you can do to help them. Activities such as action rhymes, songs and stories with a distinctive rhyme, rhythm and repetition are fun, and children learn from them. Children love these games and you’ll find you enjoy them too.
Enjoy your time with them.
The more you enjoy being with the children in your care, the safer they’ll feel and the easier they’ll be to manage.
Calmness and a regular routine are very soothing. Try to warn children in advance about changes to routine. For example, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to the dentist. You’ll sit in the dentist’s special chair, which goes up and down. You’ll open up your mouth and they will look at your teeth. The dentist is a very nice, kind person who helps children to have strong, healthy teeth’. You can also play ‘dentists’ so the child knows what will happen.
Understanding trauma: new video resources
Understanding more about the impact of trauma is easy with three new video resources aimed at helping carers. The videos feature Dr Howard Bath – a leading specialist on understanding the behaviours of children in care and a former Children’s Commissioner of the Nothern Territory.
You can view the videos here – www.community.nsw.gov.au/trauma – they feature information about the core needs of children and young people who have experienced neglect and trauma and include tips on assisting them develop healthy coping strategies.
The videos were produced by Family and Community Services as an extra resource to support carers in their role. They may be useful to caseworkers and could even be watched at carer group meetings and morning teas, and other settings.
‘I feel empowered by it, don’t just look at the behaviour, you need to know what’s behind it.’
‘This reminded me I need to be gentle and kind, it’s not just about good routines.’
The videos help carers get a strong understanding of how trauma can influence behaviours. Carers have already told us that they find them useful. You could watch them as a series or over time.