Sunday, 23 September 2012

What we say and the way we say it....

Having worked with and cared for children who have lived through a range of trauma for many years, one thing I am clear about is how sensitive they are to the words they hear and the tone of voice used.  Living in a home where there is chaos, unpredictability, or a regime which has to be followed by everyone all the time or there are dire and dangerous consequences, will make a child develop the necessary reactions and skills to keep them alive so they can survive.  This is not a conscious process but is one the brain is designed to prioritise from before birth to keep us alive and unharmed otherwise the brain will be of little use beyond that! 

Children who have lived with trauma have brains which need to develop the ability to heighten their senses to hear, see, feel and/or smell threat or danger and this is not something the brain will easily allow them to 'switch off'.  The whiff of alcohol on an adults breath, the sign of agitated fiddling with a belt buckle, hearing "I can't find my keys, where are my damn keys, what have you done with my keys......." increasing in intensity, or even just the word "keys" can be enough to trigger a child's brain to think 'get out of here' or 'cause a distraction as its all going to kick off soon'.  The way an adult tousles their hair or touches their arm can mean don't step out of line or I'll get you, or you know what's coming tonight when you're lying in your bed.

We use words everyday, all day with children so it puts a great deal of pressure on us to get them right!  The best rule for me is, WOULD I TALK TO AN ADULT THAT WAY?????  I always give these examples:
  • on leaving the house you friend forgets her bag - "would you like me to grab your bag for you?/your bags still here, would you like it?"
  • on leaving the house your child forgets their bag - "get your bag, your always forgetting it, how are you going to cope in life if you never remember anything/how many times do I have to say, "get your bag", I've got enough to think about/you don't see me forgetting things all the time, get organised"
If you put me in front of a car engine to change the spark plugs and my instructions every time I try are:
  • no
  • don't
  • leave that
  •  stop it
  • don't keep doing that
  • how many times do I have to tell you, "no"
  • leave it alone
  • look what you've done
  • you need to learn
  • don't touch that
I will hear your disapproval, irritation and clear instructions to stop what I'm doing and I will hear that what I am doing is wrong so I am learning that I can't do this so I must be a useless. 

For a child who has grown up around this it will trigger a spiralling sense of failure and worthlessness with the relating behaviours - 'you think I'm rubbish/stupid/incapable/thick', well I'll show you!  Cue a huge emotional overload for the child which will have to come out in their behaviour as they will not have an emotional system to put how they feel into words.

It is easy when we are caring for children to only give them part of the picture so they know what we don't want them to do but not what we do want them to do!!  How then will they learn as they do not come out with a full set of social skills or the ability to understand how to operate in the World generally!

A note of negativity in our voice is hard to avoid but a skill we can all learn, first calm yourself down, so long as everyone is safe then the behaviour can be dealt with in a bit when you have thought through that  there may have been many reasons whey they filled the washing machine with jam, painted the dog, bit their class mate, smeared pooh everywhere, tipped their dinner on the floor.  Then when you are talking about this together, you can be more genuinely curious which will work best of all and will feel more able to explore the feelings behind it all and a plan for next time.

Going back to my previous blogs, children do not learn best when feeling shame or fear, they are in the wrong part of their brain and this is so easily triggered in a traumatised child by what they hear in our voices and find in the words we say to them and can cause a dramatic response.  Luckily, practising saying things differently in our heads and to children can greatly improve things over time, but it needs to be as consistent as possible so get everyone on board at home, pre-school, school and in the wider family, why would you not??

Even a simple, "you need to pop your coat on the peg when you come in" rather than, "don't drop your coat on the floor" can start the process well as you have told them what you would like them to do (works well with adults too) but ensure the tone of voice is casual without irritation - practise on the dog or cat when no one is around!!

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