It is important we don’t underestimate the impact of experiences on babies. Because babies don’t communicate with verbal language, we often make the mistake of thinking that they are not affected by their surroundings. However, babies’ brains are developing exponentially in early childhood and creating the building blocks for future learning. As such their brains are especially vulnerable to being impacted by negative experiences. Often the impact of these experiences is not seen until the child is older. We might see some behaviours that we consider to be naughty or autistic or ADHD, when in fact the child is simply expressing the impact of early developmental trauma.
Things that may cause developmental trauma can include separation from birth parents, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, physical illness, being placed in care more than once (even loving care), and having family violence in the home. These traumas result in children developing unhealthy coping strategies at the same time as stopping them develop ‘normal’ living skills such as emotional regulation and problem solving. Because brains are flexible and open to being re-sculptured, there are things you can do to help rebuild and repair the effect of developmental trauma on children’s brains.
What it requires is repairing interventions to be offered over a long period of time. There is no quick fix, but there can be great results if you stick at it.
It is helpful to understand that traumatised children need to go backwards in order to go forwards. This means you need to respond to this child at its emotional age rather than its actual age. Babies’ experience of the world is very tactile or touch based. This gives us a clue to what might be helpful. The traumatised child may need more cuddles, rocking and singing to, as this is what their brain has missed out on. Soft blankets, warm pyjamas, crunchy foods (carrot sticks), chewy foods, and a warm bath can help. Letting them dig in the sand or mud, having a tug of war and doing deep breathing together are also helpful.
The child’s behaviours may prompt you to be punishing. Get as much support for yourself so that you can remain calm, clear and kind. These kids need an empathetic approach to child rearing. It’s not easy work, but it is vital.
By Liz Cole,
Warkworth family support worker