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Understanding the impact of childhood trauma

The topic of childhood trauma is a difficult one to discuss. Not only is it confronting to consider children’s experience of trauma and abuse but naturally this topic can be triggering for many adults too. Yet it’s important that those who work with children have an understanding of the many, complex ways in which trauma can present and feel empowered to help.

While many children experience upsetting and frightening events, the term ‘childhood trauma’ most commonly refers to relational trauma – the experience of a caregiving relationship as frightening, abusive or unresponsive. Sadly, many young children experience abuse, neglect and family violence within their homes, which can be further complicated by a parents’ mental illness or substance use. In these situations, young children are doubly affected – not only by the traumatic incidents themselves, but by the lack of healthy supportive caregiving relationships, critical for healthy early development.

To know how best to help, it’s important that we first understand the impact that trauma has on children.  Unfortunately, there’s no simple formula for predicting this. Instead, we consider the complex interplay between several factors.

These factors include the nature, severity and duration of the trauma, the temperament of the child and the level of support and quality of any other relationships available to the child. There are also other factors to consider too. Was the child exposed to drugs or alcohol while in the womb? What was the extent of any physical injuries or nutritional deficiencies experienced? Consider too the degree of financial hardship felt by the family since this factor, like many others, will further influence a child’s outcomes.

Age matters too of course. During the first year of life, important brain pathways develop making the first 12 months a particularly critical period. When infants experience trauma during this period, the impact tends to be much greater.

Given how many different factors are at play, it makes sense then that the effects of trauma can vary too.

These effects include:

  • delays or difficulties relating to a child’s overall development
  • poor concentration
  • difficulties with learning
  • impaired cognitive capacity
  • poor social skills

Children will also often find it hard to calm down from big feelings states and may have come to rely on physical strategies such as rocking or head banging. They may find it difficult to problem solve or to control their impulses.

It helps to understand too that children who have been maltreated often never reach a totally calm state and may instead always be on the look out for danger.

Because they’re often on edge, children can find transitions particularly hard to deal with and may over-react to seemingly minor changes in their routine or environment.

These kids may struggle to ‘read’ others’ facial expressions and intentions and will often experience difficulties relating to their behaviour.

Children who have experienced early trauma also often develop what we call a ‘negative internal working model’ – that is, they may have learned to see themselves as unlovable/ unworthy, others as rejecting or unavailable and the world as unsafe. And these differences in how they see themselves, others and the world will naturally influence how they interpret various situations and, importantly, how they choose to respond.

Of course, the earlier we get in to help, the better. It’s critical that we ensure children’s current safety and that children and their carers are linked in with professional support services. That said, educators can do a lot to help too.

I cover these practical healing strategies in detail in my webinar series for early years educators but the foundation for all of these approaches is for educators to build strong positive relationships with children. This really is the key to helping children heal. This is where things first went wrong and is the most important place to start when setting things right. Once we have this foundation, we can start to address any of the important developmental tasks or skills that a child may not have gained but they first need to feel safe and accepted by us in order to learn these.

Of course, many children will benefit from ongoing professional therapeutic support but the ideal goal is for carers, educators and therapists to work together so that they can each contribute to the child’s recovery. Educators are in a particularly powerful position to help through their continuing, daily interactions. When children experience a safe, predictable, nurturing relationship with an adult who accepts and understands them, they can start to see themselves as lovable, others as reliable and the world as mostly safe. And their healing can begin…

To learn specific strategies for helping children heal from childhood trauma, educators can register for Dr Kaylene Henderson’s webinar here:

(Image credit: Gerome Viavant; Sculpture by Alexander Milov;)

Webinar : 5 : Challenging Behaviours in Young Children

Thank you for registering for this webinar. Our support team will contact you within 48 hours with further instructions.

We look forward to welcoming you to the live webinar on 22nd March 2018 at 7.30pm (DST) and to sharing this as a filmed resource with you thereafter.

For any enquiries, please contact


Course-Preview-Images_webinar-series-5 One of the most challenging aspects of an educator’s role is managing children’s behaviours.

What is reasonable to expect of educators? Which strategies are supported by research? Is there a magic one-size-fits-all approach to discipline?

Join trusted Child Psychiatrist Dr Kaylene Henderson as she addresses the important topic of challenging behaviours in young children.

Feel more confident in your important role knowing that you are guiding children in ways that really benefit them (while making your job easier too!). This is a helpful and highly practical session, not to be missed.

Webinar : 4 : Understanding the Impact of Childhood Trauma and Helping Children Heal

Thank you for registering for this webinar. Our support team will contact you within 48 hours with further instructions.

We look forward to welcoming you to the live webinar on 22nd February 2018 at 7.30pm (DST) and to sharing this as a filmed resource with you thereafter.

For any enquiries, please contact


Course-Preview-Images_webinar-series-4 Sadly, many children in care and education settings have experienced early childhood trauma. The impact of this can be widely felt, yet there is little guidance for educators on how they can help.

Join trusted Child Psychiatrist Dr Kaylene Henderson as she covers this important topic. Learn about the impact of trauma on the developing brain, the ways in which this might present in your service and practical ways in which you can help both children and their families. There is so much you can do to help in your important roles – Don’t miss this important learning opportunity.

Filmed Webinar : 3 : Understanding Anxiety and Emotional Resilience

Please note, you will need to download your certificate for your Course Status to be recorded as ‘Completed’.

Course-Preview-Images_webinar-series-3 Join trusted Child Psychiatrist Dr Kaylene Henderson as she teaches you all you need to know about anxiety in young children. Learn about how and why anxiety presents in children, when to ‘worry about worry’ and how you can help the children with whom you work. Learn practical skills and strategies for helping children and parents manage separation anxiety and ways to foster greater resilience. This is a not-to-be-missed session!

Filmed Webinar : 2 : Promoting Attachment Security, Fostering Wellbeing and Enhancing Developmental Outcomes in ECEC Settings

Please note, you will need to download your certificate for your Course Status to be recorded as ‘Completed’.

Course-Preview-Images_webinar-series-2 In this informative session presented by Dr Kaylene Henderson, we explore children’s needs within their relationships and interactions with us. In particular, you will learn ways to interact with children to promote a secure attachment style. While we know that a secure attachment style promotes best outcomes for children, how commonly does this occur? How can we better support children and also their parents in order to promote this? Finally, building on this foundation, we will look at other factors that influence children’s development and at how you can best teach and support children within ECEC settings to enhance their developmental outcomes.

Filmed Webinar : 1 : Teaching Young Children To Identify and Manage Their Feelings in Early Education and Care Settings

Please note, you will need to download your certificate for your Course Status to be recorded as ‘Completed’.

Course-Preview-Images_webinar-series-1 In this informative and engaging session, adapted from the acclaimed ‘Raising Good Kids’ online course series and presented by Dr Kaylene Henderson, you will learn how to promote early emotional literacy among the children in your care. You will also learn about how children develop the capacity to regulate their feelings and how best to promote this development. Importantly, you will also learn the most effective approach to take when children are feeling upset, experiencing separation distress or experiencing a ‘meltdown’. Don’t miss this practical session for educators working with 0-5’s.