Sunday, 9 December 2012

Raising children who have experienced trauma and abuse

Raising children who have experienced trauma and abuse is like opening Pandora's box to find a jewel encrusted onion in it.  It's the most beautiful thing you have ever seen but with layers and layers of complex needs and emotions which will reveal themselves over the years when you least expect it.

So why is this, I am not a neuroscientist or a psychologist or any kind of 'ist' so can only share what I have seen and read.  A baby may be removed and placed with a loving family within days of its birth or even on the day so surely they will then go on to respond to the love and care they receive with few issues in life?  It is logical to assume this but I have met children and heard and read about them for whom this is not entirely the case.

As babies they have been quite hard to care for, crying a great deal, being hard to settle and soothe and sensitive to changes in routine, atmosphere and carers.  Often they have complex eating habits, either being fussy and picky or always hungry and rarely satisfied for long.  As children and young people it has been a roller coaster with carers left to try and work out what is going on and why, unless they access the right professional and/or book!

This is what I know, a baby's brain starts to form at around 7 weeks so anything which the mother is experiencing the baby's brain will be too.  It is fair to say the children who are removed early from birth mothers will be because they are at extreme risk of harm so during pregnancy the woman is unlikely to be able to rest up and with low levels of stress.  In fact, the opposite is most likely to be the case where the pregnant woman is being repeatedly exposed to stress and trauma which releases chemicals into her system which then pass to the foetus's developing brain. 

"If the mother's state of mind is highly anxious then stress hormones cross the placenta and affect the unborn baby.  Genetic inheritances combined with prenatal influences might lead some babies to  be very fragile and hard to soothe at birth" (Music, G, 2011)

Kate Cairns (2002) tells us, "Stress is toxic to the brain, causing profound changes in brain structure and function..." 

The main hormone which has been indentified as causing the most ongoing issues is cortisol.  There is plenty of research to tell us that the foetus responds to sound so imagine an environment where they are repeatedly exposed to shouting, loudness and frequent chaos.  There is also research which shows how the foetus is affected by maternal depression being generally in a more highly aroused, anxious state and being more responsive to external stimuli. (Music, 2011)

So back to cortisol, there is now evidence that if  the pregnant mother's state of mind is known then it is possible to predict the child's behaviours "a year or more after birth" (Music, 2011).  This may seem astounding but I am including it to illustrate why you may be struggling so much as this is what you are contending with rather than that you are getting it wrong!  Cortisol is one of the stress/threat hormones which gets us ready for action if we feel we are in danger.  Along with adrenalin and others it gets our body ready to run or fight or be very still.  Our heart rate increases, our thinking brain switches off, breathing becomes shallow we feel anxious and wired and so it is hard to concentrate and leads to over, or sometimes, under-reaction.

Cortisol is good in small doses as it may keep us alive if a truck is heading for us or a very angry person it may encourage us to run or fight for our lives. If a foetus or young child is repeatedly exposed to it then it will become increasingly likely that it will take a long time for the levels to drop back down to a state of relaxation and comfort and so a repetitive cycle begins to form leading to childhood anxiety and over, or under reaction.  For some, being flooded by cortisol gets to levels where the brain switches everything off as a defence mechanism so a person may become very still and not react at all, in a child this can antagonise others as they don't respond to requests or interact but it is a survival tactic triggered by the brain.

There is so much more I could say on this subject but I don't want to overload you and Kate Cairns and Graham Music's books are good ones to dip in and out of, or you can always contact me and if I don't know the answer I will find it out for you.

In summary, a foetus exposed to stress and trauma can be deeply affected as this is when the brain is forming and in particular the cortisol hormone which freely crosses the placenta has a great impact on how they will function in terms of anxiety and hyper sensitivity.  They may have a more reactive brain as the more basic survival functions will have been triggered more in the womb so as as child they will often have huge reactions to simple things and this will bring the cortisol flooding in and then they will stay in that state for much longer than is healthy or helpful to them and others.

What those caring for children affected in this way need is plenty of the right kind of support.  Not everyone may be able or willing to understand that this is what you are all coping with but they can offer practical support or just listen to you off load without interrupting or offering advice, hugs are good too. 

As a carer you need huge patience, the ability to accept that this is the way you child is wired so that you need to teach them how to manage what their brain and body does to them.  So, any self calming exercises will be a great gift to them, not  making them feel bad about what they have done but pointing out that we try not to hurt others by using our teeth to bite as teeth are for biting apples.  Talking about how they felt when it happened and how the injured party might be feeling, plenty of hugs and reassurance are vital. 

All of this needs to happen when your cortisol levels have come down and your child's or it will go wrong!  You are under repeated stress too so it may take a while and that is fine, the best way to  bring cortisol down is by hard exercise so a danceathon, star jumps, running hard round the garden, stomping, pummelling cushions are all great for this.  Then you can chat through the feelings in a kindly way as they are more likely to be in the thinking part of their brain.

Many of us struggle with reactive brains and high cortisol levels which can be a curse but learning to manage them is possible and that is great to know, I am living proof of that!!

Remember, taking care of yourself is top of the pile as you are on an amazing journey and are steering the ship so if you go down so will the ship and everyone on it!

Cairns, K 2002, Attachment, trauma and resilience, British Association for Adoption & Fostering, London
Music, G 2011 Nurturing Natures, Psychology Press, Hove & New York

Jane EvansTrauma Parenting & Behaviour Skills Specialist
Mobile: 07946318404 Landline: 01249 721104
Twitter: @janeparenting Website:  


  1. Great article!! Thanks Jane x

  2. Hello. I have children with anxiety. How do I follow you in regards to posts/audio recordings. I heard a podcast and found it very helpful.