Rethinking childhood trauma on Anzac Day

I have been attending some monthly meetings held by the Commissioner for Children, and this month Narelle Whatley A PhD Candidate At the School of Social Science UTAS, presented some of her thesis on “Young people’s experience of family violence” The thing I have been left with the most is that  most people who suffered childhood abuse or trauma, didn’t seek counselling, even as adults. I’m sure I’d heard this before, but somehow it hit me differently.

I had been immersed in reading and listening to world experts on trauma treatments over the last while and suddenly I was hit by the image of these experts with all their knowledge, worlds apart from the child who pretty soon works out no one can help so keeps quiet. I got a sense of their world through the voices presented. I hadn’t noticed that part of the reason they don’t find a trusted adult early on is that they moved houses and schools so often. I revisited my own emotional experience of early school life and imagined adding a new house, school, teacher, peers… well no wonder.

Then I thought about the children I am seeing and have seen who’s early life was tumultuous and terrifying, and they have all been brought along by someone else, usually an adult who has some working responsibility for them and needs help. I have routinely asked all these children what had made a difference to them, dealing with all they were dealing with, and the thing that stands out is the rare, infrequent, connection with someone who cared about them and believed in them. It may have been a grandparent or other relative but was commonly a trusted teacher. The thing that helped was not that they intervened in the violence and tried to fix it, but that they somehow allowed the child to believe in themselves.

Neuroscience has given us an amazing understanding of the traumatized brain and the trauma response but has made no difference to the effectiveness of treatment. As Cloe Madanes famously said “Satisfying human relationships can be the most healing “medications” of all. No amount of exercise, meditation, massage, stress reduction or broccoli is an adequate substitute for love and affection for promoting health.

It then occurred to me that if we really want to make a difference to children it might be good to look at things from their perspective. What would be helpful for a child who is suffering, but is protective of their parents and doesn’t want them to get into trouble? What would help the child who stays silent because they perceive that the social interventions in place to help would actually make things worse for them? How do we ask the questions that might actually make life better for such a child and their family?

I think it will take a cultural change. Humberto Maturana, Chilean biologist, gives the best description of how cultural change happens in his talk/writings about the origins of patriarchy. It starts with a change in emotion, which is taken on for some reason or other, not as a manner of living for the adults, but for some greater good. But, when children are born into this new way, they take it on as a manner of living, and it becomes transparent.

What if doctors, nurses, antenatal nurses, obstetricians, child health nurses, pediatricians, social workers, early childhood intervention and family workers, child care workers, Centrelink officers, drug and alcohol workers, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, police, ambulance officers, the justice system, family law courts, teachers, teachers aids, sports coaches, gym coaches, bank tellers, shop assistants and tv celebrities, started with love, affection and broccoli anytime they were confronted with a child or family exhibiting what trauma experts would know as the hyper-arousal of trauma symptoms, hitherto thought to be bad behaviours by all of the above.

“Satisfying human relationships can be the most healing “medications” of all. No amount of exercise, meditation, massage, stress reduction or broccoli is an adequate substitute for love and affection for promoting health.” Cloe Madanes

One thought on “Rethinking childhood trauma on Anzac Day

  1. Great post Gabrielle and useful questions. Thank you.
    I watched this TED talk this morning and for some reason it seems linked to what you are speaking.
    Michelle Alexander – The Future of Race in America


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