I have always struggled with children being described as ‘angry’ or doing things because they ‘are angry’. How can a child or anyone be one simple emotion, unless it is to make things more straightforward and ‘tidy’ for the adults around them? Why is this such a problem for me? Because it seems so damning and disrespectful to the child, it shuts down genuine curiosity about other emotions and the trauma behind the behaviour.
For over 20 years I have worked with children, parents and carers impacted by early childhood trauma, which is much more common at low levels than it suits society to acknowledge at present! The use of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study may change that someday soon so I urge you to look at it now and be ahead of this big ‘AHA’ moment that policy makers will have one day!!! For me child to adult violence ‘makes sense’ and has not caused me any head scratching or beard stroking which I find is the most common response amongst professionals and academics at present. I often get told they feel ‘out of their depth’ with it or, I see they jump in with out-dated ineffective advice on firmer, consistent boundaries and consequences and incentives. All of which are at best inappropriate and at worst, going to ramp things up and increase confrontation.
Please don’t hear that I am saying that child to adult violence is in anyway acceptable, it most certainly is not but that is not the issue. What has to happen is it has to be seen as a pathetic trauma based attempt at attachment which goes horribly wrong very quickly and is dangerous to the child and all those in their orbit, although often it will be directed at one person most of the time. In the series My Violent Child on Channel 5, you see me working with 2 birth families with younger children who are lashing out at their parents but with the mothers taking the brunt of it all. There is also sibling violence and some directed towards a father too, and it does happen outside of the home as well.
By the time I came to work with the families they had been asking for help for a long time and had seen a variety of professionals. In both cases they found that having an understanding of why their children were lashing out and being verbally abusive the most helpful thing and are working hard to use calmness, connection, and kindly correction with them, which is not easy when interactions are normally very tense and explosive. Work is ongoing with both families as trauma takes a long time to address and understand as it is always in both the parents and the child.
What about child to adult abuse in fostering? Whilst offering respite foster care, most of the children I cared for were not aggressive towards me as they were mostly very young, however, they did begin my journey to gaining a deep understanding of attachment and trauma needs. I have been able to combine this with the work I have been doing for Wish for a Brighter Future, in Bristol, for the past 14 months. Engaging with families struggling with child to parent violence from 11-17 year olds has given me experience of what lies behind it and how it destroys the whole family.
In fostering, the trauma history can be largely unknown but is robust and will impact a child in all areas of their development. For foster carers it can be a minefield with no minesweeper on offer! Safety must ALWAYS be of paramount importance as once a child has caused a serious injury it can change the course of their life for ever and that of their carers. No one, least of all them, wants that to happen. I advise making a Safety Plan with the child, if they are old enough and the behaviour threatens safety. Explaining how much they are valued and that it is about protecting them from doing something they will regret or may get harmed doing and to keep everyone else safe when things are calm and there is good emotional connection means they can explore it too and make suggestions. Including that under some circumstances the Police would need to come to help adds an extra layer of safety and protection and what that might look and feel like is a good idea. This must ALL be done in a non-blaming or threatening way as that’s not the purpose of the exercise. It is to ensure everyone’s safety and to show how everyone, including the child, is precious and valued.
To support a child who is so traumatised that they physically assault the people they are most reliant upon for their survival and safety requires great patience, understanding and compassion for you first and foremost or it will be even harder. Having support to be able to release all the pent up frustrations, fears, sadness and trauma which comes with being abused on a daily basis when the strongest desire is to care for and nurture, is beyond vital. So that means having someone who listens and does not try to fix you or the child but really can hear your feelings and frustrations and emotionally, and may be physically, hold you whilst you vent. I advise that being someone outside of your intimate relationship, so it may be a counsellor as paying someone to have to listen can feel great as you are released of the need for reciprocity, or the feeling that you are being a burden which can be present in intimate relationships, especially as you may need to unload about them as well, just as a means of processing of course!!
There are a further 2 episodes of My Violent Child and I feature with the second family on 18th March. It has been a real eye-opener how positive people have been about seeing my work ‘in action’ as for many years I have been repeatedly ‘told’ it could never be the solution. So, if you are curious about what using calmness, emotional connection and kindly correction actually looks like then make sure you watch both episodes!
Trauma Parenting Specialist, International Speaker & Trainer
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Creating Champions for Life Trauma Parenting Expert