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Trauma and How to Help

Children who come into care will most likely be experiencing effects of trauma that can impact on their thoughts, feelings, development and behaviour. Sometimes this behaviour can be challenging for carers, who can become frustrated, angry and exhausted when their normal techniques are not as effective in managing a child’s reactive behaviours.

It’s important to understand that many of these behaviours have, in the past, actually helped the child to cope and survive, and that their body and brain are doing what they are supposed to do – keep the child safe. However some of these coping strategies (which some people might view as ‘naughty’ or aggressive) may not be healthy or helpful once the child has left an unsafe situation.

The good news is that research shows that children can recover from the effects of trauma and that their brains and bodies can learn new ways to respond to a safer environment. The keys to recovery are supportive and caring relationships with adults who understand the child’s behaviour, respond to their needs and provide physical and emotional safety.

This means that, as a carer, you have an opportunity to help children in your care to manage and recover from the effects of trauma. But it will take time, patience, practice and ‘seeing the hurt behind the behaviour’.

The following information can help. 

​What You Might See ​What You Can Do

A traumatised baby, child or young person can be frightened, withdrawn, clingy, angry, irritable, shocked or 'numb'.

Use everyday interactions to help children feel safe, wanted, capable, worthwhile and cared about

Be available, reliable and consistent

Praise even ‘neutral’ behaviour

Give children and young people a sense of hope that things can and will get better

Be calm, talk softly, provide soothing activities and avoid exposing babies, children and young people to reminders of the trauma (including movies and stories)

Try to have consistent times for meals, school, homework, quiet time, play time, dinner and chores. Explain to children beforehand if there are going to be any changes

Be nurturing, comforting and affectionate in the appropriate context. For older children, be physically affectionate only when the child seeks it and don’t demand hugs or kisses

Listen for a child’s misunderstanding of traumatic events (especially if they blame themselves) and reassure them that it is not their fault

 

Children in care can have trouble ‘reading’ faces and body language and might think there is a threat or criticism when there is none.

They might react more quickly and aggressively than other children to something they think is a threat.

Their behaviours might be very challenging for carers.


Don’t take these behaviours personally

Help children to notice and understand facial expressions and tones of voice so they are less likely to react strongly in non-threatening situations

Plan ahead to avoid difficult situations

Notice the child’s responses to certain situations (or after particular movies or activities) and avoid, cut short or stop activities that upset or re-traumatize them

Take every opportunity to reinforce and reward positive behaviour with warmth and praise

Be aware of your own emotional reactions to behaviour and take time to calm yourself when you feel angry or frustrated

Get out of ‘power struggles’ by: recognizing when you are in one; removing yourself from the situation; waiting until you feel calm before dealing with the situation; keeping interactions short and to the point (no lecturing); avoiding arguing; understanding when your ‘buttons are being pushed’; not taking the behaviour personally; planning ahead and talking in advance with the child or young person about expectations and consequences; and focusing on restoring your relationship once the power struggle is over

Find ways to relax, relieve stress, look after yourself and get support if you need it, including talking to the child's Caseworker about any concerns

Babies, children and young people may not have the skills to regulate their behaviour or to calm down when they are stressed or upset.

Learn to notice a child or young person’s mood and any signs of stress so you can help the child to manage. You might need to redirect children before their stress and behaviour increase

Don't yell or be aggressive

Keep your voice low, calm and even

For children: come down to their eye level, gently take their hands and use simple, direct words

Give directions without using strong emotions

Help children and young people learn breathing techniques, relaxation skills or exercises they can do when they feel upset. Praise them for expressing their feelings or calming themselves down

Take the time to listen, talk and play with children to help them feel safe to tell or show how they are feeling

Allow and support them to try out new ideas to cope with their feelings and fearful situations (e.g. bedtime)

Children and young people don’t always understand or know how to express what they are feeling.


Tell children it’s OK to feel the way they feel. Allow them to cry or be sad

Don’t be afraid to listen to a child if they want to talk about their traumatic experiences (however  don't raise or force the issue yourself).  Listen to the child without overreacting; answer questions and provide comfort and support. Help children to understand and manage what they are feeling and give them words to express their emotions

Lead by example - show and talk about your own emotions in a safe way

​​

Children and young people may have trouble concentrating, remembering, following rules and learning from consequences.

Help/encourage children to do fun physical activities (such as play, exercise or sport). These activities can stimulate the part of the brain that helps trauma recovery

Have predictable, consistent routines

Break tasks and instructions down into small pieces

Use things such as pictures (e.g. a star chart) and words to help children learn and remember routines or rules. Introduce these slowly and help children get used to one change before introducing another

Give honest, brief, simple and age-appropriate answers to children's questions, even when they ask the same question over and over. Children may be trying to make sense out of the confusion in their world

​​

The behaviour and development of a baby, child or young person might regress (‘go backwards’).

They might become ‘clingy’ and dependent.

Expect and accept this behaviour - it’s one way of coping with what they have been through. Support a baby, child or young person ‘where they are at’ rather than according to their age

Don’t criticize the child or young person by using words like ‘babyish’ or ‘baby’

Provide experiences and activities that help babies, children and young people to act and react in playful ways and take their attention away from negative past events and behaviours. This can help them to begin to develop a sense of trust and belonging

Provide lots of positive experiences, support and comments

Help children discover their strengths so they feel good about themselves

Help young people to find activities that offer opportunities to experience mastery, control and self-esteem

Use a positive approach to helping children manage their behaviour, rather than a punishing approach

​​

Children and young people can feel like they have no sense of control and that they don’t belong.

Find ways to help them feel part of the family

Accept their feelings for their parents (this ‘gives them permission’ to accept you without giving up their parents)

Encourage children and young people to feel in control and make decisions, e.g. about meals, what to eat, consequences for behaviour

Find ways to show that you are interested and care about the child in your care

The Kids Matter website has further information on how to support babies and children who have experienced trauma (see below). They also have a range of general tip sheets on understanding and managing children’s behaviour; helping children to cope; and promoting positive mental health.

For babies and preschoolers

For school children

The NT Families website also has more information about understanding and managing the behaviour of babies, children and young people and promoting resilience, coping strategies and mental health. When using this information, it's useful to think about how it might relate to a child recovering from trauma.

For parenting support, counselling and education 8am-10pm seven days a week, you can call Parentline: 1300 30 1300.

Children and young people can call Kids Helpline for counselling and support : 1800 55 1800.

 

IMPORTANT

Punishment:  A carer cannot use any form of discipline that involves spanking, slapping, shouting, blaming, shaming or ridiculing a child. These approaches may seem quick and can allow an adult to vent frustration - but physical and psychological forms of punishment do not teach the child self-control. Instead, they reinforce the child’s experience that the bigger, angrier and stronger you are, the more you get your own way. These types of punishment can also damage a child’s relationship with their carer, trigger another traumatic response and make a child feel frightened.