Treatment for Childhood Trauma
When I was studying to become a psychologist, I learned about a study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences study1 (or ACE’s), and it blew my mind, broke my heart, and lit my heart full of passion all at once. The study found that with each traumatic experience a child had (such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, domestic violence, substance misuse within household, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, and/or an incarcerated household member), the chance of being affected in some way during their adult life increased compared to someone who hadn’t experienced an ACE, and each added experience often doubled, tripled or quadrupled their chance of becoming ill. Experiencing ACEs are associated with diseases like diabetes, alcohol and drug use and dependency, dental health, foetal mortality, pregnancy complications, depressive episodes and suicide attempts, and high risk sexual behaviours. The statistics are frightening, but we CAN intervene: as parents, as family and friends, as professionals, as teachers and as a community. Treatment for childhood trauma is possible through many options, all based on the current scientific evidence.
Trauma. It’s a scary word. Yet, most people will experience a trauma in their lifetime. When a person experiences or perceives an event or events as life threatening, the effects can be overwhelming. Traumatic events have the potential to rewire a person’s brain in unhelpful ways, such as hypervigilance, paranoia, having difficulty staying or falling asleep, irritability, mood swings, flashbacks, and emotional dysregulation (or a fancy way to say “My kid is losing their s***!”). Emotional dysregulation is the main issue I see over and over again in kids who experience trauma. The reason these effects occur when there is trauma is because of our brain’s fight or flight response. Many people understand this as never backing down when there is a threat or running away. Both are adequate responses when we are threatened. Picture a tiger jumping out at you: you can use the adrenaline to run for your life, or fight to the death. However, there is another response that can occur when we cannot escape danger, and this is FREEZE. When we freeze, our brain perceives that we will get hurt no matter what we do, and this belief can develop into mental health issues including depression, helplessness, personality disorders, and many more. When we FIGHT, we get angry and lose our head easily in order to protect ourselves, which is the most common type of emotional dysregulation. When we FLEE, we can be hypervigilant, worry easily and endlessly, and develop anxiety. When trauma rewires the brain to stay in fight or flight mode, we can have trouble sleeping, regulating our emotions, feel irritable and tired, have little to no appetite, weight gain or losses, and fatigue as it is not a response that can be sustained over a long time.
There are many things anyone can do with regards to responding to children directly proceeding a traumatic experience, and seeking treatment for childhood trauma can be an incredible addition to the following things. It is incredibly important for children to be validated, (e.g. It sounds like you’re really angry/scared/worried…; ‘I believe you’). You can help them feel safe by keeping their routine predictable, allow them time to be alone if they need, to act out their trauma (in a safe place) using toys, and not judging or correcting it, and to be present. Children need parents and caregivers to be calm, to be consistent and to display empathy to thrive. This does not require perfection, but attention. Picturing yourself as an anchor on a ship helping the ship stay strong in a hurricane can help, or phrases to remind yourself to remain grounded. Remember all behaviour has a purpose, and that children do not do ‘naughty’ things simply to agitate us. It is our job as adults to play detective and work out ‘WHY’ children do what they do.
Treatment for childhood trauma may include Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy2 (TF-CBT), Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) depending on their age and/or Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), as well as implementing attachment principles such as Circle of Security (COS-P). As a child psychologist, I adapt the therapy to best suit the child and parent because improvements are made quicker and better sustained when everyone works as a team, and is on the same page.
TF-CBT is particularly adaptable, and easily applied in a variety of ways to each individual and their family. Relaxation strategies to help children self-regulate in moments of losing their head are essential. These range from breathing techniques, mindfulness, meditation, play therapy, and progressive muscle relaxation. Not only do we want to encourage noticing our behaviours and playing detective, we also want to address the thoughts that come along with those behaviours.
Treatment of childhood trauma requires significant time spent on re-teaching the brain that it is safe, that there is no threat, and the thoughts your child is having about the threat are unhelpful and making them *feel* more scared, worried and/or angry. Challenging thoughts such as “I don’t want to do this”, “this is too scary”, “I will get hurt again” are all examples of unhelpful thoughts that make us feel a certain way which in turn makes us take an action. This action may be to lash out, to internalise, or to mistrust people. If we can challenge these unhelpful thoughts, they will have a ripple effect on our feelings and behaviours. Together, we learn new ways of thinking, techniques for coping with big, scary feelings, and exploring different and healthier ways of reacting when those thoughts and feelings pop up.
This article was written by our psychologist, Camillie Fitzgerald. Camille works with children and families and has experience working with trauma. If your child has experienced a traumatic event, please give us a call and book an appointment to get started with recovery. A referral from your GP will facilitate rebates for your psychology sessions. Download our Referral Information Sheet and take this with you to your long consulation with your GP.
Disclaimer: Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only and is not intended to replace advise from your doctor or registered health professional. Readers are urged to consult their registered practitioner for diagnosis and treatment for their medical concerns.
1 Monnat, S. M., & Chandler, R. F. (2015). Long Term Physical Health Consequences of Adverse Childhood Experiences. The Sociological quarterly, 56(4), 723-752.
2 Cohen, Judith A. (2006). Treating trauma and traumatic grief in children and adolescents ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.