Stress and trauma in children today

Stress and trauma in children today

Research suggests that there has been a rise in both the quantity of children affected by traumatic experiences and the severity of the trauma experienced (Cafcass, 2009; Donnelly, 2013). These experiences are shown to impact on children’s behaviour, learning and self-regulation, and yet teachers are currently not commonly or consistently informed of this.

Due to developments in neuroscience research throughout the last decade, there has been an increase in understanding of the concept of trauma among the general public. There are frequent commentaries in the media on the latest statistics regarding the traumatic experiences of children and young people, and it is suggested that three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder (Daniel, 2014).

Traumatic stress is caused by exposure to or witnessing of extreme and potentially life threatening events. Traumatic exposure may be brief in duration (e.g. an accident), or involve prolonged, repeated exposure (e.g. sexual abuse). The former has been referred to as “Type I” trauma and the latter as “Type II” trauma (Terr, 1991). Knowledge of traumatic stress – how it develops, how it presents, and how it affects the lives of those who suffer with it – may be the first step towards being able to interact positively with those affected by it. Teachers are responsible for the education of many children who exhibit symptoms of behavioural responses to Type 1 and Type 2 trauma.

Alongside the categorisation of Type I and Type 2trauma, there is an increasing recognition of the consequences of interpersonal trauma, in terms of attachment theory, which is now acknowledged in many children’s settings. Traumatic events described as interpersonal trauma are complex in nature, due to emotional involvement with people, usually close family members, who were passively or actively involved in the traumatic experience. While community disasters have invariably provoked a degree of media coverage, sympathy, support and occasionally recovery interventions for children, it is the media’s exposure of interpersonal trauma throughout the last decade that has increased public awareness of the concept and associated problems. This has benefitted the advance in rigorous safeguarding as a norm in working with children and young people (HM Government, 2004, 2010).

Some research suggests that disclosure of multiple, interpersonal traumatic, prolonged events, such as exposure to domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse and exploitation, is continually increasing (Barnardo’s, 2014).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) describes the variable psychological distress reactions following exposure to a traumatic event. The DSM-5 provides a standardised classification system for the diagnosis of mental health disorders in both children and adults, and the diagnosis and identification of trauma symptoms has developed:

‘In some cases symptoms can be well understood within an anxiety– or fear-based context. It is clear, however, that many individuals who have been exposed to a traumatic or stressful event exhibit a phenotype in which, rather than anxiety- or fear-based symptoms, the most prominent clinical characteristics are anhedonic and dysphoric symptoms, externalizing angry and aggressive symptoms, or dissociative symptoms’ (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Research highlights depression or dysphoric symptoms as a rising problem for children and young people today, estimating that more than 80,000 children in the UK suffer from severe depression, including 8,000 below the age of 10. The author of this article, which featured these statistics on the front page of a leading newspaper, suggested that, ‘More needs to be done to identify these cases and support the children’ (Donelly, 2013).

Professionals working with children and young people are becoming better at identifying child protection concerns, due to government legislation making it compulsory to attend regular training in safeguarding (Department for Education and Skills, 2004). The requirement of bi-annual training for all who work in education, health and law enforcement has improved understanding of emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect, and has increased the responsibility of these professionals to make appropriate referrals. Safeguarding is now, ‘everybody’s business’ (HM. Government, 2010). 

Within the context of increases in safeguarding training and trauma research, it would seem logical to assume that those professionals who children spend the highest proportion of their waking hours with would be trained on the impact of trauma on their daily lives and classroom experiences. However, thus far, research seems to have demonstrated a lack of training for both new and experienced teachers in the identification of trauma symptoms or strategies to support these children.

This is a passion of ours…. that teachers and other professionals would be trained to identify signs and symptoms of trauma in children and young people. With this knowledge we hope that they would then be offered appropriate intervention to help them recover from trauma. 

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