If you work with troubled children, sooner or later they’ll tell you what’s happened to them.
So why do some children struggle to give a clear story of what took place?
Trauma and memory…
A couple of years ago, I was first on the scene at a serious car crash. It was awful. Really awful.
It was raining hard, the crashed car’s horn was stuck on, traffic on the motorway rushed passed and I could hear the groans of a badly injured man from somewhere in the wreckage.
Over an hour later, I found myself sat in the back of a police car thinking hard. I was trying to remember what had just happened.
A patient and experienced police officer asked me to recount what I’d done when we saw the crashed car at the side of the motorway.
I couldn’t remember.
I looked at him. I looked at my wife sitting next to me. I looked back at him. But I couldn’t tell the officer a coherent story of what I’d seen and done. Even though it had just happened.
Feelings trump facts…
Normally, we find remembering something fairly straight forward. What we had for lunch, where we were last Christmas, our kids’ birthdays, etc.
We are able to think back, recall the occasion in question and say what happened, what we felt, what we saw.
It’s like we have a filing cabinet in our mind and we can just go back to a particular time and place, pull out the file and read off the memories of what happened. Easy.
Not so with traumatic memories.
Most memories are fairly clear. We have a general sense of what happened and we can access the detail fairly easily – particularly once we start to talk about it.
Traumatic memories are different.
When a situation is very troubling, even life-threatening, the brain is overwhelmed with the emotion of it all. When this happens, the brain doesn’t store the facts very well.
Effectively, the body’s response to the terror of what’s happening, floods the factual memories and washes them away. When we experience an acute survival response, we go into fight/flight/freeze mode – living trumps remembering.
Afterwards, we may have a clear sense of how we felt, but little memory of what actually happened. It’s like we have odd pieces of the jigsaw, but can’t access the whole picture.
Little people, big feelings…
Shouting, swearing and breaking things can be scary for adults to go through. It’s even more frightening for little children who feel the lack of power acutely. What is scary to us may feel life-threatening to children.
How much more so when adults are being violent, children are being hit, weapons brandished with threats to kills and harm. Terrifying!
In such circumstances, children will struggle to hold onto the facts of what took place. Their little bodies are in a chemical state of alarm and their brain is focused on survival, not on remembering.
Having difficulty telling the story of what’s happened to them is normal for kids who’ve experienced traumatic things.
How we can help…
Here are a few things to get us started in helping troubled kids to tell their story:
- Patience – just knowing that children may struggle to remember can help us to help them by being more patient. What’s the rush?
- Priorities – helping the child tell their story is the most important thing. “Getting a disclosure” or “gathering evidence” is not! Let’s keep the long term goal in view – helping kids to recover.
- Pedantry – we need to forget trying to get every detail and just allow the child to talk at their own pace. Probing for particular details is rarely helpful and may disrupt the flow.
- Re-telling – having opportunities to tell the story time and time again can really help children (and adults!) to recall more of what happened. As emotions calm, facts come back to the fore.
- Re-feeling – recounting awful events will bring back difficult feelings. We need to keep this in mind and help children manage and regulate those feelings as they tell us what went on.
- Remembering – that the facts which come back to mind will not be pleasant ones. We must be ready to support children through the feelings and fresh realisation of what’s happened to them.
- Creativity – talking be tricky at the best of times. Using more creative approaches (drawing, sand trays, play figures, etc.) can help children explore their memories less directly and more easily.
- Capturing – recording what children tell us is important. Take pictures of the play scenes created, write down (verbatim if possible) what they say, and do it as soon afterwards as you can.
The job of taking disclosures is a tricky one. Supporting children through it should always be our priority.
Just knowing that the mind doesn’t hold onto factual information very well in the context of trauma, can really help us to help children more effectively.
What do you think?…
- How do you approach taking such disclosures? What advice would you give?
- Please let me know your thoughts… Leave a comment below or click here.
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© Jonny Matthew 2017