Five ways to support kids dealing with developmental trauma

“Every child is made in the image of God and is treasured by him”

We have all been at an event or church or in a public setting where we’ve noticed a child standing out from those around them, and not for the right reasons. Perhaps it’s been a meltdown at the shopping centre or a child hitting another in Sunday school. Perhaps you’ve looked around for their parent, wondering when they’re going to step in and sort it out. Perhaps, to your surprise, you’ve discovered the responsible adult is you!

As the leader of Anglicare Sydney’s Clinical Care team, I hear these stories often from foster carers who are supporting children impacted by early life trauma. Our team provides support and guidance to foster carers, teachers, case managers and therapists in response to the challenges that can come up when caring for a child.

Our goal is to come alongside carers to think through how they can most helpfully respond – not just to manage the behaviour, but to actually heal the trauma that is sitting underneath. As an organisation driven by Christ’s love, we know every child is made in the image of God and is treasured by him – the ultimate healer and restorer.

There are simple principles everyone can employ that are helpful and effective.

We want to share the expertise we’ve gained through our study and experience to equip foster carers with the knowledge and strategies they need to play an active part in God’s plan to see each child thrive in health and wholeness.

Some of our foster carers are long-term foster carers who have had years of experience and wisdom of their own to draw on. Other foster carers provide crisis, respite, weekend and short-term care, and may not have had the opportunity to develop a deep relationship with the child yet. For those carers especially, effective strategies are essential.

Most people don’t have a team of trained clinicians on hand when they come across a child displaying challenging behaviours. But the good news is that there are simple principles everyone can employ that are helpful and effective and extend practical love to children experiencing developmental trauma.

Recurring trauma during childhood has a huge impact on the way the brain is built.

What is developmental trauma?

Developmental trauma is a pattern of ongoing or recurring trauma, typically abuse or neglect, that occurs during childhood in the context of the key relationships that a child depends on to be safe.

As the brain is developing so rapidly during childhood (including in the in-utero period), recurring trauma during this time has a huge impact on the way the brain is built. The brain has to focus on survival, and therefore becomes sensitive to signs of danger, while other brain functions related to less essential tasks, like learning or managing relationships, take a back seat.

Children affected by developmental trauma often learn adults can’t be trusted and that they, themselves, aren’t worthy of care.

Because these children have had to focus on survival, they learn to keep themselves safe in the best way that they can. This often results in behaviours that can be experienced as challenging by the adults who care for them, which is why we provide this day-to-day support for carers, equipping them to know how best to respond and encouraging them to persist.

Balancing structure and nurture

Two of the things that children who’ve experienced trauma need the most from the adults in their lives are structure and nurture. Structure and nurture are sometimes described as the two legs used to run the marathon of foster care. Both play an important role and combine to bring balance.

Over time, structure and nurture rewire the brain toward healing and safety.

Structure is doing things like having clear routines and boundaries that help children know what to expect from other people and from the world around them. For a foster carer or for a teacher, that might look like having a visual schedule up in the house or classroom showing the routine for the day or the week. It might look like using consistent language to remind children of the boundaries, reinforcing what is expected of them.

Nurture is about engaging empathetically with a child’s emotions and meeting their physical and emotional needs as they come up. Experiences of nurture teach children that they’re cared for and that adults can be trusted. This might look like texting a funny picture while a teenager is at school to show they’re on your mind, or reconnecting with a cuddle after a meltdown.

Nurture is crucial for children with developmental trauma

Over time, structure and nurture rewire the brain toward healing and an orientation toward safety. They really can have a tangible healing effect on a child who is affected by developmental trauma.

Just as developmental trauma occurs in the brain in the context of relationships, so too does healing from it. As carers or other adults in a child’s life come in and provide a different experience of relationship, it changes the brain and helps healing happen.

Relationships where the fruit of the Spirit is on display are healing for us all.

5 practical things everyone can do

1.    Pray for children in foster care as they heal from developmental trauma, with the help of their foster carers and the care teams around them.

2.    Look with eyes of compassion: When you spot misbehaviour, see a child whose brain might have developed differently, who needs love and support to build new skills.

3.    Offer help to foster carers: If you know families who provide foster care, consider how you might use your time and skills to offer practical support – making a meal, cleaning an oven, or driving a child to sports practice each week.

4.    Build relationships with foster siblings: The biological children of foster carers play such important roles, but it can be tough. Consider how you might be a listening ear and show them some extra care.

5.    Nurture the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – relationships where these are on display are healing for us all, including children impacted by developmental trauma and those who care for them.

Lucinda Mackintosh leads Anglicare Sydney’s Clinical Care team – a specialist therapeutic team within their Foster Care program.

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