When I am out and about talking to people about the work of Clear Sky I often say “we support children who have experienced trauma through Play & Creative Arts Therapy”

The follow up question is normally one of two things

  1. What is Play and Creative Arts Therapy?
  2. What kind of trauma do you work with?

The second question about trauma comes up quite often, and I find myself answering with “anything that a child has experienced that they are not quite ready to deal with”.

The word trauma brings up a number of different images for individuals. Some might picture an event that has happened like a car accident, or living in a war zone. To others, it might be the experience of abuse or threats to life and health. But the neurobiological definition of trauma is actually much broader than relating to these specific events.

Traumatic events can be any experience that is deemed too much, too fast or too soon.

Children are supposed to be safe and protected from traumatic experiences. But as we can see in the definition, children are actually exposed to traumatic things more often than we would probably imagine.

When children are exposed to situations and experiences that they are not yet ready to deal with, their central nervous system becomes overwhelmed. Children struggle to make sense of these experiences because of their limited understanding of the world and people within it.

When children have experienced trauma, they can get stuck in fight, flight or freeze mode. These primal instincts are designed to keep us safe when in life threatening danger, however in today’s world these responses can be triggered in everyday situations. Children can ‘go off the rails’ in class and abscond from school (flight). They can become aggressive and start throwing chairs in the classroom (fight). Or they might stop dead in their tracks and become paralysed by fear (freeze). These responses can be triggered by many situations that appear to pose a threat in the child’s eyes. These triggers are inbuilt, hardwired into the brain based on the child’s experiences. If the child has experienced the world as a scary place these triggers will be more prominent and children will be quicker to activate them when they feel threatened.

The fight, flight and freeze responses are tell-tale signs of a child who has experienced trauma. If you have a child who reacts in this way in the classroom it is really important that you access the right type of support to help the child overcome these challenges in a safe and effective way. Play & Creative Arts Therapy is an effective way to help children to overcome trauma and begin to regulate their nervous system. Only when children have found an effective way of calming the nervous system will they be able to access learning at school.

How will I know if a child has experienced trauma and what can I do about it?

But what about other children in your care? If they are not showing these tell-tale signs, how will we know if they have experienced trauma?

Well the answer to that question is simple really. Ask yourself “was this child able to fully understand and deal with the experience they’ve had?”

The answer in many situations is no. We wouldn’t expect a child to be able to understand the death of a parent, the breakdown of a family, a fire in the family home, or their own experience of abuse. So why do we expect them to be able to cope without giving them appropriate support?

Some children have great resilience. These children are typically those with secure attachments (relationships) at home with parents, carers or other significant adults. These children are more easily able to bounce back after difficult events because the secure relationships act as protection against stress and trauma. But there are other children who may seem resilient, who may actually be stuck in ‘freeze’ mode. Pay attention to these children because they can be the ones who go under the radar unnoticed. If you know a child has experienced something traumatic and that there is a lack of protective factors (e.g. secure relationships with caring adults), please seek the help of a professional with this child. A Play & Creative Arts Therapist can provide support a child to overcome trauma.

I hope that this article changes your perspective of trauma and the breadth of experiences for children. I am sure that many people reading can identify with an experience of trauma that has shaped them in some way. I know that when I lost my Mum I was not able to process the experience and I struggled as a result. It took me a good 10 years to fully understand and overcome the trauma of this life changing event. Please be mindful and don’t underestimate the challenges that children face as they can truly be life altering in a negative way if not dealt with early on.

By Sophia Giblin, CEO

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