Frankly I get pissed off with being told that developmental trauma isn’t a real thing. Yesterday 250 people who live with the everyday realities of trauma in children gathered for the Adoption UK 2014 conference to listen to Dr Bruce Perry speak. Not once were we told to put more structure in place, or to set up a system of rewards and sanctions, or to lecture more or to just pull ourselves together and grow some back bone.
It became clear to me quite early on that I was sharing my life with two children who see threat everywhere. They see it in eye contact, tone of voice, they smell it in certain smells, they expect to result from the most benign of circumstances. There is not a single week, or day, or hour or sometimes minute when I am not reminded that their inner working models are based around threat and the expectation that others are not well-intentioned. I’m told that there is little scientific evidence for all this. To that my response is, come and live in my house for a couple of weeks.
Now that’s off my chest, here are a a few of the most relevant things I learnt or was reminded of yesterday:
1. The brain develops templates based on experience. If it’s template for ‘person who I live with’ is lack of care/hurt/fear then this is what it will expect of future ‘person who I live with’ (or who teaches me or otherwise tries to care for me or who tells me to do stuff). This is why I get accused of shouting, being threatening and hating everyone if I ask someone to take the rubbish out or brush their teeth.
2. Shifting these templates takes consistency, permanency and persistence. This is why I always feel I am fighting the templates (‘you are SHOUTING at me’/’I’m talking in a normal voice, see how quiet it is’/’STOP SHOUTING’/’I’m not shouting’/’yes you are, I hate you you child abuser’).
3. The brain at first sees novelty as a threat (‘would you like to watch this programme with me about space?’/’no get lost, I hate you’/’shall I take that as a no then?’/’fuck off’).
4. Our children are sensitised to threat. (This is so obvious I can’t understand why it’s not accepted.)
5. Children respond to stresses by fight, flight or dissociation. I live with one of each, but both can use either, depending … They dysregulate easily (again, so obvious).
6. A dysregulated child needs the support of a regulated adult. We have to act as their external regulatory system. A dysregulated adult cannot hope to help regulate a child. Ever.
7. Self care is the most important part of therapeutic parenting/teaching etc #takingcare
8. Rhythm calms dysregulated children; music (listening and playing), walking, cycling, bouncing, talking, car journeys.
9. Take a step back from a dysregulated child and lower your voice (reduce the perception of threat).
10. Reward schemes are constructed with the assumption that children are choosing to be aggressive/figgety/chatty/gobby. They are not. They are dysregulated and therefore not operating in the thinking part of their brains.
11. Children with poor templates around relationships need lots of space around them. Try standing or sitting parallel to them. This is why one of my children talks and talks and shares loads every evening that I drive him to his club. Then he falls asleep (that’s the rhythmic thing about engines). This could also be why children flip out at school when adults flood in around them at times of stress (again, obvious?).
12. Children need regular time to dissociate i.e. veg out. For us this is particularly noticeable after school. Don’t hit them with ‘how was your day?’, or ‘do you have any homework?’ Give space and time and then go in gently (regulate then connect).
But what does this all this mean practically? In our family it means playing music at mealtimes, making more time to massage each others shoulders and generally being a bit more mindful of trying to keep regulated, whilst all the while remembering that it’s not possible to get it right all the time.