21 July 2016
Most children and young people coming into state care do so after experiencing some form of neglect or abuse. This leaves many disturbed and vulnerable.
From that difficult beginning, after they enter care, they may encounter a level of complexity and adversity in their new environment and circumstances that would challenge many adults.
This double dose of adversity frequently traumatises children and can give rise to behaviour that confuses, confronts and threatens the adults who care for them. There have been vast changes in the way children are viewed, in notions of children’s rights and in the understanding of child and adolescent psychology that have led to a more nuanced approach to challenging behaviour. But adults who are under stress or insufficiently trained might see such behaviour simply as a challenge to adult authority and respond accordingly. Children who are already traumatised then experience adult responses such as, disapproval, anger, withdrawal of affection, isolation and physical restraint which all serve to deepen and entrench the trauma. And this entrenches the behaviour that goes with it.
The many systems that are at play in the life of a child under guardianship often respond to challenging behaviour in ways that add even more change and more complexity to the child’s life. We change carers and workers, move children to different houses and social groups, to different schools and so on.
So, many young people get caught in a downward spiral of untreated trauma that is aggravated by the well-meaning response of the adults and institutions that are supposed to help them. Untreated, the trauma and its associated behaviour can lead to a lifetime of poor mental health, persistent antisocial behaviour, isolation, contact with the justice system and the many associated problems.
Addressing this is fundamental to our good treatment of children and young people who come into the state’s care. The solutions are simple to articulate, though profound in their implications and complex in practice:
- All care environments are trauma-informed. All adults involved understand and practice trauma-informed care. All of the places where children in care live provide a consistent, kind and understanding place where trauma can heal.
- Adults deal with the complexity. The complex jumble of systems, organisations and business units that work with children in care will step out from behind their own interests, habits and preoccupations. They will focus clearly, rigorously and consistently on the totality of a child’s experience and how that can be smoothed to ease the way for those who already have faced so much adversity in their lives.
Two excellent resources dealing with these issues are Healing Developmental Trauma, an article by former advocate at the Guardian’s Office Sarah Bishop and Beyond Adversity, a longer paper by UK organisation Young Minds.