Echos from the Past Part 3: The impact of trauma on the developing child

Posted on 02/21/11 by erynwicker

This week’s article is the last in our series on Dr. Bruce Perry’s work on the lasting impact of early childhood trauma and neglect. Now, I don’t know if you felt this way after reading my last two articles, but even though I wrote them I found myself asking this question afterwards: What can I do? I felt exactly the same way after Day 1 of my training with Dr. Perry. So I thought, with our last article, we could focus on some suggestions from Dr. Perry of what parents and caregivers (including therapists, doctors, social workers, foster parents, neighbours, coaches, teachers, and grandparents) can do to make a difference in the lives of maltreated children. 

  • Nurture these children – physical, caring, loving all the while attuned to their responses and reacting accordingly.
  • Try to understand the behaviours before punishment or consequences so you don’t have a misunderstanding, for example, confusing their hoarding of food (because they were deprived) for stealing.
  • Parent these children based upon emotional age because neglected and abused children may be delayed in their emotional and social skills and often regress when frustrated or fearful.
  • Be consistent, predictable, and repetitive because even pleasant surprises and social situations can be disorganizing for these children.
  • Model and teach appropriate social behaviours as well as coaching them while they play with other children.
  • Listen to and talk with these children because when you are quiet and interactive they may really open up.
  • Have realistic expectations of these children.
  • Be patient with the child’s progress and with yourself.
  • Take advantage of other resources like books, websites, workshops, support groups.
  • Experiences need to be positive, educational, developmentally appropriate, and therapeutic. To do so they need to have the following core elements: Relational (safe); Relevant (matched to developmental age); Repetitive (patterned); Rewarding (pleasurable); Rhythmic (resonant with brain patterns); and Respectful (of the child, family, and culture).

But more importantly is what we can do beforehand. Intervention is great, early intervention even more so, but what about prevention. Therapy with maltreated children is difficult for many reasons, and the earlier the better, but the wisest strategy is to prevent abusive, neglectful, and chaotic caregiving so that fewer children will require therapy. As individual members of a society we are all product of our childhoods, so the society that understands and values its children is the one that will thrive.

  • Promote education about child and brain development. Understanding healthy development can shape positive caregiving in homes, early childhood settings, and schools. It has to stop being true that we require more formal education and training to drive a car than to be a parent.
  • Address the relational poverty in our modern world because we are actually designed for a different world than the one we created for ourselves. Children have less connection with extended family, fewer opportunities for spontaneous peer interaction, and limited contact with neighbours. Simple changes such as: limiting television use, having family meals, playing games together, and including extended family, neighbours, and the elderly in the lives of children could all help.
  • Foster healthy developmental strengths. Dr. Perry lists Six Core Strengths for Children as a vaccine against violence: Attachment (being able to form and maintain healthy emotional bonds and attachment); Self-regulation (containing impulses, the ability to notice and control primary urges as well as feelings such as frustration); Affiliation (being able to join and contribute to a group); Attunement (being aware of others, recognizing the needs, interests, strengths, and values of others); Tolerance (understanding and accepting differences in others); and Respect (finding value in differences, appreciating worth in yourself and others).

And remember, an echo from the past doesn’t have to be a ghost from the past.

For more information about Dr. Perry and his work please visit www.childtrauma.org.