Families: Supporting children who have experienced trauma

Episode 152 December 10, 2023 00:25:35
Families: Supporting children who have experienced trauma
Emerging Minds Podcast
Families: Supporting children who have experienced trauma

Dec 10 2023 | 00:25:35

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Show Notes

This episode comes from the Emerging Minds Families podcast. Host Alicia Ranford talks with Dan Moss, who has a long history of working in support services with children who have experienced trauma. Dan helps us understand what relational trauma is and how it can affect the mental health and wellbeing of the children in our lives.
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Episode Transcript

[00:00:02] Speaker A: Welcome to the Emerging Minds Podcast. [00:00:08] Speaker B: Hi, I'm Nadia Rossi from the Emerging Minds Families Podcast Channel. For something different this week we wanted to showcase another one of our family's podcast episodes for those of you who don't know. Each fortnight we talk with people from all over Australia as they generously share with their experiences and knowledge and the strengths and skills they've developed while navigating the ups and downs of parenting, raising a family, and the trickier times that life can bring. We also hear from professionals who offer practical strategies to help families support the mental health and well being of the children and young people in their lives. Our conversations highlight what families and professionals have learnt throughout their journey and our hope is that their stories can help you support the families you work with in your everyday practice. At Emerging Minds Families you can find trusted information and resources, including videos, printable fact sheets, animations and more on the Emerging Minds website under the Families tab. Today we wanted to share an episode recorded with our very own Dan Moss, who talks about the difficult topic of childhood trauma and in particular the concept of relational trauma. Dan has a long history of working in supported services with children who have experienced trauma and he helped us unpack for families what is relational trauma and how it can affect the mental health and well being of children in our lives. We hope you enjoyed this episode and if you'd like to hear more you can find us by searching emerging Minds families on your favourite podcast streaming service or by following us on Facebook at Emerging Minds Families or Instagram by searching Emerging Mindsau. [00:01:50] Speaker C: Welcome to the Emerging Minds Families Podcast. [00:01:53] Speaker A: Hi, I'm Alicia Ranford and you are listening to an Emerging Minds Families podcast. Today we are talking about the difficult topic of childhood trauma and in particular the concept of relational trauma. Within this conversation today we will be touching on themes around abuse and neglect. And so please, if you feel this may cause you distress, perhaps give this episode a Miss and join us next fortnight, or you can find some resources for support in our show notes. Our guest today is Dan Moss. He has a long history of working in support services with children who have experienced trauma and is going to help us unpack and understand what is relational trauma and how it can affect the mental health and well being of children in our lives. Hi Dan, thanks for joining us today. [00:02:38] Speaker D: Thanks Alicia, thanks for having me. [00:02:40] Speaker A: Oh, it's great to have you here and I wondered if perhaps you could start by explaining to our listeners what is interpersonal trauma? [00:02:48] Speaker D: Yeah, so when we talk about interpersonal, or perhaps relational trauma, we're thinking about the distressing or overwhelming childhood experiences that are caused by a breakdown in trust between adults or important adults in that child's life, these experiences invariably involve an abuse of power. So we'd be thinking about instances such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect. We know that children need safe and supportive relationships to make sense of the world and to be confident in their place in the world. So when the people that should be providing the safe and trustworthy relationships that children need, when this is ruptured, this has significant repercussions for children. [00:03:33] Speaker A: So what do you mean by the word ruptured? [00:03:36] Speaker D: Interpersonal or relational trauma so often involves a rupturing of the trust that children need to develop confidence in their place in the world. So if you think, for example, of small children, they're looking to the parents or adults in their lives to comfort them when they're distressed and to give them the sense of safety and certainty that they need. And so when those adults, those people that are causing those children to feel hurt or unsafe or scared or anxious, then this often has significant ramifications for these children in the fact that they're not sure who to turn to for the safety and support that they need. And this can also really play havoc with children's internal messaging around who they go to for support and really what they deserve. We would say that all children deserve to have safe environments in which to learn and thrive. And when children have experiences where there's not safety or where adults sometimes deliberately ensure that environment is not safe, well, then this often imbues in children a great deal of confusion both about the world around them and about who they are within that world. [00:04:52] Speaker A: And so in your experience, what are the ways in which children usually respond to this kind of trauma instead of, say, the trauma of experience, an accident or perhaps living through a interesting, because. [00:05:05] Speaker D: You'Re right, Alicia, there are lots of different traumas, and community trauma is one of them. But in relational or interpersonal trauma, there's some specific effects on that for children, and often for children who are abused, certainly by someone that they know and trust, there's often a great sense of shame or self blame for those children, particularly when they come to believe that what happened to them happened because they were a naughty kid or they were complicit in what happened, or they wanted what happened to happen. And so there can be a whole lot of these effects which can continue in the lives of children throughout their lives. And what we know now in talking to adult survivors of abuse, that these effects, if they're not supported. To be able to tell their stories can actually have long term negative consequences for decades in the lives of children, young people and then adults. [00:06:02] Speaker A: And you mentioned in their secrecy and self blame. Why is it important to address these aspects, in particular with children? [00:06:12] Speaker D: Yeah. So secrecy is really a strong nurturer of abuse. I know that's a funny kind of contradiction in terms, but so many instances or episodes of abuse throughout our history in countries like Australia have never been disclosed or come to the fore. And that's because we're not very good as a society in talking about topics like abuse. It's nobody's favourite topic. We really would not like to think that things like this can happen to our children. But of course, recent events in Australia, and we've seen so many media events now where we're thinking about institutional sexual abuse of children. And so now, as a society, we're much better at understanding that these things can and do happen to children. And as a society, we need to be better at being able to firstly protect children from the effects of abuse, but also be better at having conversations like we're having today. Because children who have been abused are so often told by the perpetrator that if they tell someone what happens, then they will get in trouble themselves, or their parents might be in trouble or this will cause their family to break down. And so not only are children having to, by themselves, make sense of the really traumatic and at times horrifying events that happen to them, but they're also trying to negotiate living with these events alone so that they don't hurt the people that they care most about in their lives. And if you think about sexual abuse, particularly, perpetrators are often so effective in making children believe that their family members will come to great harm if this abuse is ever disclosed. So secrecy is a really strong risk factor still in our society in terms of helping children who have been abused to be able to seek the necessary support for that abuse. If we look at self blame, too, so many children who have been through abuse come to believe, either through the words of the perpetrator or through things that happen to them later in life. So these children are more likely to have trouble at school or to have trouble with friends. And so children who firstly go through traumatic events and secondly have the effects felt in their peer or school or family relationships so often just start to begin to think of themselves as failures. And so these effects can become really quite real for children who are not only dealing with the trauma itself, the event itself, but with the ramifications for years to come. [00:09:01] Speaker A: Dan, for parents listening today, and I have two children myself who are young adults now. I always tried to really foster an environment where they felt that they could tell me anything. And I listen to you now talking about perpetrators who perhaps encourage the notion that children can't trust in their parents or carers. What can parents do to really give that message strongly to their kids that they can trust them or tell them anything? [00:09:26] Speaker D: Yeah, really great question, Alicia. And I think there's so many wonderful ways now that families and parents are able to imbue in their children a sense that they can tell them anything or discuss anything. I think if you go back a generation or two generations, children, you remember that old saying that children should be seen and not heard. There was a great sense that children shouldn't be involved in adult conversations, that children were not ready for those conversations. And so there was often a lot of hushed corridor conversations with adults where children were not allowed to be involved in that. I think as a society now, and I hear of your kind of experience, that parents are much better at including children in the conversations that they need to have in terms of practice. We now start to talk about a practice shift where we see children as contributors to decisions that affect their lives rather than just recipients. And this is a really important shift because we now think much more about the importance of children's voice and that they should be involved in all kind of decisions that will or could affect their lives, and to be involved in mature conversations supported by an adult, so that these conversations, confusing or anxiety provoking for them, is a really very important thing for all children. I think as a society, we're definitely getting better at that, but there's still work to do. [00:11:00] Speaker A: How do you help a child cope with the effects of this kind of trauma? [00:11:04] Speaker D: Yeah, another really great question. And lots of parents are going through this at the moment. They might have been involved often the stepfather who's used violence or coercive control. A non offending parent might be working to support their child who's been through sexual or emotional abuse. And this is obviously a highly anxiety provoking experience for non offending parents and in social services and practices. We see this so often where a parent just wants the best for their child, but doesn't quite know how to go about supporting them. Research shows the absolute most important thing for a child who's been through an episode of interpersonal trauma is that their experience is believed and validated. And so where a parent can just listen to their child and be empathetic to the consequences of the traumatic action and can start to position that child as being believed and in no way being complicit in what happened to them. Well, then that's the most powerful tool for recovery that a child can have. It doesn't mean that a parent needs to be an expert in trauma or to say exactly the right things on every occasion. It just needs that consistent, safe, nurturing environment for recovery to take place. [00:12:25] Speaker A: Can this really personal kind of trauma affect the parent child relationship? [00:12:30] Speaker D: Absolutely. And as I said before, there are often huge consequences for a child who's been through interpersonal trauma. There can be consequences for their behavior. There can be consequences for their communication. There can be consequences in their mental health. So all of these things, different stages of a child's development, may actually provide a challenge for parents. And within this, parents can often think that the behavior might just be a child acting up or a child being naughty. But often behavior can be communication in terms that children need a bit more support around what's happened to them, or they're feeling particularly distressed, or they're having particularly strong reactions to what happened to them. So often. This can just mean that they just need a little bit more time, a little bit more support again to get to where they're going to. But again, with that consistent support, there's no reason that children can't make those recoveries and that they can't enjoy the same sorts of experiences that other kids do. I think often for parents, it's a great sense of anxiety that their child's going to be forever affected negatively and not enjoy the same experience as other children. And that kind of anxiety can have them feeling kind of particularly heightened or particularly worried. And so I think it's really important just to remember that children can recover from these events, and certainly can, and often do, most often do go on to recover well and to live really positive lives with positive experiences. [00:14:07] Speaker A: That's fantastic to hear you say that, Dan, because I think that that would be, for anyone listening today whose children are perhaps going through this, that's a really hopeful message to hear that kids really can go on to lead fantastic lives. One of the things that we hear from families is that they fear saying the wrong thing to their children when talking about abuse or perhaps potentially what might have happened to a child. What would you say for our listeners who perhaps are feeling that way themselves? [00:14:35] Speaker D: This is a really natural reaction, isn't it? I think also it bears mentioning that children who have been through traumatic experiences often have demonstrated a real sense of resilience against the ODs, against a kind of powerful adult in being able to do that. And so when we're working with resilient children, it's not so much saying the wrong thing that will either help a child recover or not recover. It's the more consistent environment that where a child's able to express what happened to them, able to tell their story, able to have the consistent support that they need. That's really what is most important. And again, this is borne out by research from adult survivors of trauma who consistently say, for them, these were the most important things, either that they had or in some cases, that they didn't have. The other thing is, children are never passive participants of trauma. We can often think that children just have things done to them. But in my experience, children have so often found such innovative ways either to tell somebody or to keep younger siblings safe or to keep their mother safe. Sometimes these are all stories that, as they become generated, stories that children can tell about themselves. And really what these are, these are stories of resilience, stories of connection, of courage, often of love. And if these stories can be told by children, then they're a really great safeguard against shame or self blame. It's really helping children to tell a new story about themselves, one where they weren't passive, one where they just didn't kind of let someone do scary stuff to them, where they found a way through that, they found a way to tell somebody. And once I think parents are able to share in these conversations with children, that may be that initially kind of a therapist or a support person is needed to kind of start to safely tell these stories. But once children are able to tell these stories, well, then this provides a new opportunity for meaning making. So rather than children seeing themselves as losers or weird or their fault, they'd start to be able to have a whole new story open up to them, which provides much more positive interpretations of. [00:17:02] Speaker A: What has happened and that real strength of character that they've shown to survive during these circumstances. [00:17:08] Speaker D: Yeah, absolutely, Alicia. And these stories don't come to the fore unless parents and important adults and teachers and practitioners are able to kind of ask children questions. And I'm not saying that we ask these children these questions without a great deal of care and deliberation and thinking about what's the right time, but where we are able to ask these children questions about their experiences in ways that open up new areas of thought or meaning making. Yeah, then you're right. They are absolutely more able to think about the strength of character that they've shown to get through a really quite emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive situation. [00:17:49] Speaker A: You mentioned other trusted adults, like teachers, and I think you mentioned family, friends. But what role can a child's village or community play in supporting them when they've experienced some trauma like this? [00:18:03] Speaker D: Yeah, it's a really great question. And what we find is that where you can build a team around the child, where all of the adults, whether they be a non offended parent or a cousin or an uncle or a teacher or a social worker, where they're all guided by the same consistent messages about, as you said, that child's strength of character or ways that child finds to kind of protect themselves, where they all know about these stories and can keep reinforcing them, then that provides that village, as you said, around a child which is totally safe, consistent and nurturing and counters those kind of voices of self blame or shame or secrecy that that child may carry with them often. I think that what can be tricky for some parents, what they say is that they have this team, but they have a couple of people in that team that might sometimes go down the path of blaming their child or saying things like, if only you didn't go with that person, or if only you didn't make that decision. And that can be the challenge for a parent, I think, who's wanting to make sure that their child is nurtured by safe and consistent messaging. So in thinking about having a team, a consistent team around a child, there's some work, I think, to be done in making sure that everybody's on the. [00:19:25] Speaker A: Same page and talking about this lovely way to create a team around a child. You spoke before about children being active contributors in these conversations. How can parents help their child do that? [00:19:38] Speaker D: Where a child is actively involved in what they want from their team, then and often this will be dependent on how old or the stage of development of a child. But where a child, or where we can actively ask a child what they need from us as adults and to form a team what they would most like from us, then we're moving away from the thought or the assumption that that child is completely naive about their experiences. And actually, we're moving to an acknowledgment that that child is knowledgeable. That child is the one who has been through vent or multiple experiences of trauma. And so they have some idea about what makes them feel better. They have some ideas about their preferences, about how they'd like to be known. And this might take a bit of negotiation with them. They might not just be able to verbalize this right from the get go. But where we have a team of adults who are really interested in what a child thinks about almost making a child a co researcher in all of those things that make them happier or feel safer or more confident. And often these processes can take a long time and require a bit of patience and repeat efforts. But we're able to do this with children well, then we're positioning them in a much different way to the way that the perpetrator of abuse positioned them. We're positioning them in the way where their voice is the most important voice, where the adult accountability is to the child, rather than the other way around. And all of the ways that we can do that as adults or parents, we make the opportunities for children to recover much more present and much more prevalent. And so any work that we can do in positioning a child's knowledge at the center of that is really important. [00:21:32] Speaker A: And how powerful for that child to really feel seen and heard after perhaps experiencing a situation where they didn't. [00:21:39] Speaker D: Absolutely. And certainly there'll be the parents probably listening to this who have been in this situation or are in this situation in supporting a child. And it's really amazing, I think, at the innovative ways that parents are now helping children who have been through traumatic events just to kind of start to position their own knowledge and start to help them to develop the sense of safety and consistency in their lives and agency in their lives that they need. And that certainly continues to be really inspiring, I think, how parents are able to help children to recover from events of interpersonal or relational trauma. [00:22:18] Speaker A: And I guess probably important for parents to know that they don't have to walk this journey alone, that there are professionals that can help them and their child through this situation. [00:22:28] Speaker D: Yeah, really good point, Alicia. And I think also, particularly if we look at something like sexual abuse or even physical violence for non offending parents, and often mothers will come to services and know they feel really guilty. They should have known they put their child in harm's way or feel really angry. And often it's really important for non offending parents to have someone, it's a family member, great. Or if it's a professional, also great. Whether they can just talk about thinking about their own emotions so that they can manage those emotions and get the right support for those emotions, because without that, obviously they're not going to be as well placed as they possibly could to be able to support their child's recovery. And often there's all sorts of emotions that follow a really traumatic event, both for children and for adults. And just as you say, making sure that children or parents are not alone in that recovery process is just so important. There are a whole lot of great services out there, and people are really also lucky to have really supportive family members or friends. And I think you're absolutely right that this is so often a really important protective factor in families recoveries from interpersonal trauma. [00:23:49] Speaker A: For anyone listening today that is going through this experience, we will have more resources listed in our show notes. Dan, thank you for chatting with us about this today. It's never a nice topic to talk about because as parents, we hope that we're never faced with that situation. But what would be for our listeners today, the one thing that you'd want them to take away from this, just. [00:24:11] Speaker D: In terms of thinking more broadly about how we can avoid secrecy in our society and in our families, and how we can involve children in important conversations about their safety and their ability to be able to tell their parents or family really important things whenever they need to. And also ways that we can think about how we help children to make meaning of possibly distressing events in their lives, and how we can constantly open up opportunities for children to tell their stories and to tell their stories in ways which really demonstrate their sense of resilience and connection. And as you said, strength of character, I think is a really lovely message to leave on. [00:24:55] Speaker A: Thanks, Dan. That's really great advice. And yes, thank you again for spending time with us today. Really appreciated it. [00:25:01] Speaker D: Thanks, Alicia. [00:25:03] Speaker C: Visit our website at ww emergingminds.com au Forward Slash families for a wide range of free information and resources to help support child and family mental health. Emerging Minds leads the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health. The centre is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.

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