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How to support children that have experienced household psychological or emotional abuse

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18th December 2019

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Laura Harris

In his seminal work on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)[1], Dr Felitti specifies that living with domestic abuse can have long-term emotional and physical impacts. Understanding dynamics in abusive relationships, where one person (abused) is adjusting every part of daily life to appease the other person (abuser) in an attempt to keep the family safe, there are likely to be other adverse experiences. These can include parents who are emotionally distant, have drug or alcohol issues, or have mental health difficulties. 

“If a child lives with violence, then shouting or a door slamming may trigger them. If a child lives with coercion and control, then not getting an answer right might be a trigger. It is possible to make a difference and enable these children. Schools which develop a trauma-informed approach find reductions in school exclusions.”

In Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris’s TED Talk in 2015, she asks us to consider the bodily and emotional impact that would be placed upon us if we were to unexpectedly encounter a bear in a forest. Of course, what happens is that our autonomous nervous system triggers our ‘flight or fight’ response. The hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary gland (the master gland), which in turn sends a message to the adrenal gland which releases adrenaline and cortisol into our bodies, placing the body in an state of alert, ready to cope with whatever it needs to deal with. This happens instantly and is not within our conscious control. In fact, the thinking part of the brain (the neocortex) goes ‘off-line’ as the brain solely focuses on managing the threat and survival.

Dr. Burke-Harris then asks us to imagine what happens if the bear comes home every night. Over time and with continual exposure to fear (the bear), never feeling safe, never knowing if there is going to be violence, the child habituates to this disorganised stress response and is unaware that their daily behaviour can cause concern and alarm to others. This is because it is not within their conscious control; the hypothalamus is interpreting danger everywhere.

The stress reaction is more noticeable when there is a trigger that unconsciously reminds the brain of previous dangerous situations.

The problem is that it is almost impossible to predict what these triggers might be.

If a child lives with violence, then shouting or a door slamming may trigger them. If a child lives with coercion and control, then not getting an answer right might be a trigger. Triggers can be anything, getting dirt on their clothes, having their homework destroyed by the abusive parent, not having the required equipment or work for class, worrying about what is happening at home while they are in school. All of these worries keep the child in a hyper-aroused state.

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