Relating to Childhood Trauma and Emotional Difficulties

As parents, of course we want to protect our children. As we all discover however, it’s impossible to always shield our children from difficult experiences. Actually, we may come to see our children mature when we manage to support them through tough times.

Recent research in neuroscience proves how, when a Parent (or carer) holds and soothes an infant through a period of distress, this process accelerates brain development significantly. Infants grow when supported through emotional pain, and this possibility continues into childhood and beyond. This is a very important thing for us to remember when our child is struggling emotionally – yes it’s hard, yes we would rather our children didn’t suffer, but when inevitably pain does arise for them, it is also an opportunity for growth.

Holding this in mind then, let’s think about childhood trauma. The word trauma comes from the Greek word for wound. When a child’s wound is physical, we can see it and this helps shape our response as parents. When a wound is emotional it is often much less obvious. Emotional trauma is the result of an experience or collection of experiences that feel overwhelming. What we all do when faced with such experience, without even realising it, is to split off those unbearable feelings, focusing instead on just getting through. This is a fantastic survival mechanism in the moment, but it leaves the split off feelings undigested.

Life by its very nature is sometimes overwhelming, particularly in childhood when life experience and mental/emotional capacities are limited. Therefore, we all carry some undigested feelings from childhood into adulthood. So how can we tell if our children need more of our help emotionally, and what help can we offer as parents?

Fundamentally, unresolved childhood trauma restricts our child’s capacity to trust life, to trust others and to trust themselves. This might show itself in some children as a withdrawal, in others as an escalation of highly charged behaviour. Patterns of eating and sleeping might become disrupted, patterns of behaviour might change without obvious cause, patterns of relationship will also change. As parents, we can usually sense such shifts in our children and quite often with a fairly stable family life our children will find their own way through emotional difficulties.

If you sense however is your child’s capacity to enjoy life is becoming restricted and stuck, one of the best things you can do is to set aside time for them. Set twenty minutes or so aside, once or twice a week, over a period of weeks. Let them know that this is their time, let them decide how to use your time together, let them direct you. It sounds simple, but in today’s hectic world it’s not that easy and its surprising how hard it can be to let your child set the agenda. Don’t expect your child to talk about a specific problem, or to understand or articulate what might be disturbing them. The most important thing is that your child can feel, just like the distressed infant, that you are there for them and that during that time they are your priority and your sole focus.

If you have strong concerns for your child of this nature you can contact Marianne Adams, or your local GP. If you have further questions you can visit Marianne’s website

Marianne Adams is one of Ireland's most senior Art Therapists, with 25 years experience. She is commissioned by local GPs, Child and Family Psychology Dept, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service and Social Services. She lectures in Art Therapy at CIT.

This article appeared in West Cork People 8th March 2013