In Victoria, one in seven people accessing a homelessness service is a child under the age of ten. Yet we regularly hear from practitioners that they don’t feel confident in their practice with children.
The Statewide Children’s Resource Program have developed a guide to engaging with children experiencing homelessness and family violence. Over the coming weeks Council to Homeless Persons will be reproducing chapters from this report. But if you love what you see here, why wait? You can read See, Listen and Respond right now.
Trauma Implications and Effects
Homelessness practitioners working with families have an important role to play supporting and encouraging caregivers to engage with the unique experiences and trauma reactions of children. We need to be able to recognise and understand the ways in which children express their experiences in their stories and their language, and respond as quickly and compassionately as possible.
Trauma alters baseline arousal levels, and attentional ability
Children who have experienced trauma are often hypervigilant, constantly scanning their environment for any signs of danger or anything they have learned to associate with danger. This can make them easily distracted, and they might struggle to attend to direction and/or questions. Providing calm, quiet environments with muted colours, soft lights and which are free from computer/TV screens is the best way to minimise external stimulation. This will help them be able to regulate their emotions, stay physically present and feel safe to connect with others. If a child seems distressed, or distracted, consider the environment around them, and if possible move to a quieter, less stimulating area.
Trauma restricts ability to create and maintain attachments
Traumatised children need opportunities to experience attachment relationships that offer consistency, nurture and predictability. Caregivers can be resourced to understand the significance of daily exchanges. Each positive exchange with their caregiver can help children to develop ways of experiencing the world and relationships that counteract previous poor attachment patterns. Increasing caregiver sensitivity to attuned communication with children is a core competency for caring for children with trauma backgrounds.
Caregivers experiencing trauma and crisis often find it very challenging to engage with their child. They may spend a lot of time and energy distracting their child from needing their attention, further impacting on the caregiver/child attachment relationship. Practitioners need to recognise this and support the children and their caregivers by modelling and encouraging connectedness and working with caregivers to safely engage. This may well be the most important work you do with the family.
Trauma disrupts ability to change and react to change
Traumatised children may get ‘stuck’ due to constant trauma triggers, and so enact patterns of defensive behaviour that make sense in the light of their initial trauma(s) but may not seem relevant or obvious to those around them.
It is important to understand, that while in these triggered states, children have little capacity to reshape their responses without the intentional resourcing of adults in their immediate care environment. Consider ways to let children know of upcoming changes as early as possible. Let children know the reasons for change, and if possible, allow them input into the process, even if this is in a minor manner (e.g., letting them choose a bedroom in a transitional housing unit)
Trauma undermines sense of identity, and development of social skills
Reduced self-esteem is near universal in traumatised children. Self-esteem is crucial in the formation of a concrete sense of self, and the development of a child’s sense of identity.
Traumatised children are likely to benefit from reinforcement by caregivers, and others, of qualities that denote positive sense of self and resource personal agency. Children with trauma backgrounds need support to engage positively with peers in social situations. Caregivers and other individuals will need to appreciate the importance of their role in modelling social skills and respectful interactions. This will resource traumatised children to build a network of relationships which promote connection and afford further opportunities to reconstruct their attachment styles.
When working with children experiencing homelessness or family violence consider contacting your local Statewide Children’s Resource Program Coordinator to access brokerage funds. This assistance may also provide an entry point for engagement with both child and caregiver as well as the direct benefits the brokerage could provide.
This resource was developed by the Statewide Children’s Resource Program and reproduced with their permission. You can contact them here for a hard copy, or you can read the full See, Listen and Respond report today.
Next time we put this information into effect by exploring practical ways to engage with children.