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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the brainstem survival

I thought I would share two principles from Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist who has studied trauma. These principles can help us understand the brain of a person who is traumatised. They are just two of his fundamental principles that I will explain and illustrate with stories from the kind of children that we work with in our centre. I hope it helps bring you and your loved ones freedom!


Principle from Perry No 1: The brain is organized in a hierarchical fashion, such that all incoming sensory input first enters the lower part of the brain.

I see the frustration of this with children who find themselves running away at school and at home. I know children who find themselves told off for years until we have become involved. I have had to explain to many Headteachers and teachers that children who have been consistently abused are not able to understand themselves why they react like this as it is often a brainstem reaction which has meant that the need to flight is stored in their body and has taught their brainstem to react at the slightest sense of danger.

These professionals needed to know that the brainstem and diencephalon are incapable of conscious perception. They thought these children were being naughty and so this neuroscience information has radically changed their view of these hurting children and this has caused changed behavior and created more empathy rather than rejection.  I usually explain to the young clients themselves about the brainstem being the first place to react and how it stops the higher level brain parts functioning until the cortisol has lowered and they feel safer. They usually understand this information and feel more emotional stability because the shame decreases about their behaviour as they were often embarrassed that they did things that their higher rational brain couldn’t understand or justify. The children are then able to learn to recognize their initial feelings of panic and can often self soothe in the classroom context. This one principle has changed the feelings of powerless, stupidity and shame in many young children into feelings of empowerment and ability.

Principle no 2: Neurons and neural systems are designed to change in a use dependent fashion. As we know that many of the traumatised children have experienced chaotic, unpredictable experiences and home, we know the importance of the simple things that we do in our therapy centre such as the beginning and ending rituals. We have a feeling tree and the children always walk up the stairs and have a moment to reflect on their feelings that week and place a colour apple of the tree and at the end they have a similar experience. This repetitive experience offers some stability and a sense of boundary, safety and containment for them as they begin and end the work of the session. We also introduce new experiences to the children. For example I have always worked with a lot of people who have been sexually abused and they often seem to have a huge aversion to anything which is too sensory on their hands and they often have excema and irritable skin. As these abuse memories are locked in their physiology and memory, they have not been able to re-programme their brain with new sensory experiences due to avoidance. When these senses are stimulated they cause neural reactions to enter the brainstem, the neurotransmitter networks send connections firing throughout the rest of the brain and these messages are organized into a response that is dependent on experience, so I have available things such as foam, wet spaghetti, slime and clay which, because we create a sense of safety they feel able to explore and they are able to help activate parts of the brain that would otherwise not be activated. This availability to use the sensory equipment in a repetitive way allows their brainstem to reorganize. It’s important to facilitate them to have frequent usage as this can create a new neural pathway which is positive rather than negative and can help stop the sensory feelings as a trigger.

Hope this helps with more understanding!

Freedom is worth fighting for….


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being a secure base when a traumatised child having a meltdown…

Caring for children is such a privilege and as we approach Mother’s Day, I am reminded yet again what a miracle it is being a mother. There is nothing more wonderful that giving a child a hug, a special present or spending quality time with them making cakes, picking up leaves, staring at bugs or reading them a story. It’s the small things that we can rush past that we need to remember to treasure!

When we plan on spending time with our young ones it can be such a positive experience for both the adult and the child when things go well and fun and everything ends in fits of laughter and happy faces! However, sometimes, no matter how much we plan, a child can have an emotional outburst that can change the special moment into a nightmare!

Sometimes a child can become upset, have a tantrum or look like they have ‘lost the plot’. It can take the smallest thing for them to become emotionally overwhelmed and the atmosphere can change to tense and escalate to a huge ‘scene’. Usually it happens because the child wanted his or her own way. This is normal developmental behaviour in pre school children but if the children have experienced trauma in the past, they may be re-experiencing strong negative feelings of powerlessness or fear and be unsure how to express themselves and often use regressive behaviour. There are so many reasons why a child may escalate emotionally and it’s useful to learn as caretakers, how to help a child calm down and be able to stop an emotional outburst becoming a huge painful situation. So here are some ideas for soothing and calming a child when they are emotionally dysregulated. They need to be held as ideas for children according to the emotional age of the child at that time…and for those of us working with traumatised children, these are the foundational soothing activities for times of stress and difficulty.

Some simple ideas that we recommend to the families that we work with that help children that are feelings stressed, upset or emotionally dysregulated are often using the five senses. We suggest these and have seen some real safety come to the homes of families recovering from trauma:

ImageMusic or seashell listening, swinging outside, having a cosy/ safe corner with blankets, cuddly toys ready, books, puppets to express and be a voice for the reason they became dysregulated, slime putty or playdough to play with (age relevant), journaling or scrap books for collage, favourite smells to smell (in the cosy/safe corner), visualisation exercises with pictures that they have drawn nearby and readily accessible,and of course let’s encourage  the simple art of talking together.

Some more ideas are: slow breathing exercises they can do anywhere, ‘spaghetti arms’ (shaking their arms in a loose fashion) and star jumps, calming music- listening to a CD which helps the child visualise a safe place, listening to ‘happy’ music, playing a musical instrument, drawing, painting, playing with a pet, cuddling a special soft toy, going for a walk, kicking a ball when angry, jumping on a trampoline, dancing and finally and when it really is necessary, visualising the process of putting disturbing, intrusive thoughts/images into a box, closing the lid and locking it.

It is also worth remembering that traumatised children need to learn that adults can be dependable, caring, patient and loving to counteract the negative messages they have often received in the past.  Those who become therapeutic parents or carers for a traumatized child become the children’s secure base by being emotionally available, sensitive, responsive and helpful.  To do so means we have to be able to manage our own feelings and stress so they we have something to give and so that we can try and make sure that we are not going to overflow any of our stress/negative emotions to the children. Therefore as parents and caretakers in this role, we need to get the support we need to be the best carer that we can be…-there’s no shame in needing support and time for ourselves.

So it’s good to try and remind us all that when it looks like things are going wrong, it’s best to not take it personally, be consistent and supportive, listen to the children, say sorry if necessary, accept and validate their feelings by reflecting them, be trigger aware and body language aware, avoid labels and telling them what they are feeling, and treasure the moments where things go well and we can see the little ones enjoying life and experiencing new things!


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The importance of therapy, play and empathy

Therapy is really important for children who have been traumatised. Play and multi sensory experiences are also vital. Children need also need to experience a consistent flow of understanding, care, empathy, attunement, kindness, love, affirmation, listening, time, fun, laughter and most importantly safety.

My understanding of government statements regarding the welfare of children seem to make it clear that there are concerns about children’s recovery from trauma and these need to be remembered amongst other pressures for children’s progress. Article 39 of the UNCRC 1989 says that,

‘Article 39, which obliges states to take all appropriate measures to promote the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of child victims of violence.’

A central piece of legislation relating to child welfare is The Children Act 1989, which states that the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration in making decisions about children and what the priorities should be regarding their activities.


Therefore for the children who have experienced trauma, releasing them to attend any available therapeutic programme needs to be seen as a priority even amidst the need to achieve educational outcomes because the children will be at a better place to go on and achieve these educational outcomes than if they were present at school and didn’t have the therapy. It is actually a cost effective and a strategic educational decision. Therapy needs to be seen as a priority for children ‘s educational, emotional, social, and mental health if it is available. Sadly at this moment, most schools fear the consequences of ‘unauthorised absences’ for therapy that they feel they cannot justify. They would often rather avoid having to allow children time ‘out of school’ for such interventions. Yet we know how essential it is to intervene with appropriate therapy at the youngest possible age.

Children whose minds are full up with other thoughts and worries about their life outside of school can find it extremely difficult to focus in our classrooms. Their minds might be preoccupied with the struggle of living with abuse… They will have developed learned responses which served them more or less adequately in those situations, but which simply don’t work in schools.’ (Delaney. M. 2009. p24)

As we allow our high tech society to influence our children, so the skills of play that were a normal part of life in the past which are needed to help kids process life, are largely lost. Children need multi sensory experiences to help them work out life. They need to find out about the world and how they fit in it by playing with others.

We need to help schools understand the need for art therapy and play therapy. We also need to help the ‘powers that be’ to understand the mental health benefits of creative arts, playtimes,moral education and spiritual education which are all being pushed out as ‘non essential’….If only they knew the decline in mental health that we will witness soon in our nation unless this academic priority is changed. 

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School needs to be safe; the introduction of Oakside Creative

Traumatised children need therapeutic education centres


As therapists working with children who have experienced different degrees of trauma, we do see encouraging evidence of significant improvement in the children’s lives due to the weekly therapy sessions and the parental intervention that we provide. We have seen the necessary inclusion of parenting lessons, group therapy, art therapy and individual therapy for parents who have children who have experienced trauma. I am however not only continually faced with parents who are struggling but also teachers who are desperately asking for advice about the behaviour of the children in their large classes.

We all know for a child to flourish they need to feel safe all the time. As the parent increases in knowledge, skill and understanding of the needs of the child and as they grow in awareness of how their own issues can adversely affect the child’s healthy development, the children can feel safer at home. This is why we spend time working with the parents too. However, despite the evidenced success of our service, we feel that we cant help but want to be part of the solution to the growing number of children who are finding school too difficult due to their trauma.

Every child spends an average of 6 hours per day in schools. We know that teachers aim for each child to feel safe and enjoy learning, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that teachers can feel unable to consistently facilitate an emotionally safe environment at schools that serve hundreds of pupils from a range of backgrounds, situations and contexts.

 We believe in the provision of schools that focus on emotional safety for children who have experienced trauma.

An average child who has experienced trauma without a strong, consistent, attentive family unit to enable them to process these events, will have to develop some degree of coping mechanisms and will probably be in either a state of anxiety, hypervigilance or will manage their survival in a variety of creative ways due to the flight, fright or freeze survival instinct.

Now lets put these trauma reactions and strong survival feelings into a class with 30 other children all in different contexts themselves and add a teacher who has no training in psychology or trauma who is paid to see evidenced academic outcomes that either affirm his/her skills or cause them to feel a further pressure or failure.

Teachers are under increasing pressure to produce good academic results as if children were all empty boxes that need filling with information. Empathetic teachers are often emotionally exhausted when/if they try and deal with children as individuals with unique complex needs. Yet children who are in trauma will be less likely to be able to fully engage in learning. The brain of the child who is traumatised is chronically engaged in survival mode. Because of this preoccupation with managing risk, the child’s brain’s capacity and opportunities to develop the brains neural networks and systems involved in learning are severely compromised. This makes it hard for the teacher and the student.

Children whose minds are full up with other thoughts and worries about their life outside of school can find it extremely difficult to focus in our classrooms. Their minds might be preoccupied with the struggle of living with abuse… They will have developed learned responses which served them more or less adequately in those situations, but which simply don’t work in schools.’ (Delaney. M. 2009. p24)

We are starting a therapeutic education centre for children who need to feel safe in order to learn. Oakside Creative Education Centre, a new project from the TRC will be a provision for children who need a therapeutic school environment. We will be using multi sensory teaching based in the woods and in an art studio.


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Starting at the beginning: What is Trauma?

Starting at the beginning: What is Trauma?

A simple description of trauma that is that psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security and result in you feeling helpless, alone and vulnerable in a dangerous world.

We often categorize trauma as “big T trauma” and “little T trauma”. This doesn’t at all mean that some traumatic events are undervalued, but helps us understand further the definition of trauma to include things that may not be found within the DSM IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) definition.

We are all familiar with examples of big T traumas: sexual abuse and rape, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, natural disasters, war experiences, car accidents. Little t traumas can be just as damaging, especially because they tend to occur over time, and build upon each other. Examples would be ongoing experiences of shame, humiliation, being lImageeft out, being harassed/ stalked, being bullied or ridiculed. All traumatic experiences affect how we experience the world around us, and our relationships with other people.

When there is a strong support system working around the person who has experienced trauma, this can help to stop the impact being so detrimental and these relationships can allow a natural recovery to occur if there is consistency in the love, trust and emotional engagement. However, the likelihood is that the traumatic event has impacted more than just the one person, and the ripples have influenced the wider support network. This is where therapy can play a vital part in helping people to recover from the impact of traumatic events.

Time alone does not heal all wounds, no matter what people say. The traumatic memory becomes stuck, like a heavy load lodged into the subconscious that informs and influences our decisions, desires and futures.


When we don’t allow time for the healing and recovery from trauma, that person carries around a subconscious load that weighs them down, changes their perception of life and can cause health problems. To process the trauma enables a person to heal and the mess that has been made in the heart of the person who has experienced the pain, can even be redeemed to become a message of hope for others.

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A new blog

Hi there,

This is our new blog site! We want to pack this site out with helpful blogs that enable you to understand more about the recovery from trauma. We will have some guest blogs and the majority of blogs will be written by the Director of the TRC who has many qualifications and years of experience in being a trauma therapist.

We hope it helps you!

Let us know if it does! img_6764.jpg

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