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Tuesday, 22 December 2015

3 tips for reducing stress during the festive season

By the end of the year everyone is looking forward to a break over the holiday season. Most of us look forward to spending time with our children, our family and our friends. But one part of the holiday season which no one looks forward to is added stress. Stress is a reaction to perceiving a situation as threatening or troublesome. Stress over the holiday season can arise from lots of different situations. There are the financial stressors that may come at this time; families coming together and old conflicts or difficult relationships may be exacerbated; and there may be extra work to do for Christmas parties or long travel to visit families.  Stress is well-known to have a range of physiological and psychological impacts: it can make us more susceptible to annoying colds and headaches, and can also lead us to feel irritable, tired and down. 

The good news is that psychological research has provided us with real ways that can help us reduce our stress over the holiday season! Here are three great tips to reduce stress over the festive season:

1.     Share tasks around

One of the most common sources of stress is through taking on too much or overburdening: the result of there being too many jobs to realistically complete (Kumar, 2014). While overburdening is most frequently discussed in the context of the workplace, it is also relevant to the busy festive season.
Rather than one or two family members taking on the responsibility of preparing a large amount of the Christmas celebrations, sharing the load between a larger number of family members can reduce any sense of overburdening. There are lots of ways that you can share around responsibilities at Christmas, including dividing up the food shopping between extended family members, and splitting present buying based on extended family member locations.
Sharing the responsibilities leading up to Christmas can help to reduce the feeling of overburdening and also promotes a sense of inclusion and responsibility between family members.
2.     Be aware of relationship problems
We all can’t get along with everyone, and conflicts between immediate and extended family members are a common source of stress around the festive season. 
To reduce stress arising from conflict, recognition and acceptance of different people’s triggers may prove useful; avoid sensitive topics if possible and instead of focusing on the issues that are causing you stress, turn your attention to the things that you enjoy in these relationships or at this time of year. 
Also try to avoid poor coping mechanisms, drinking excessively is likely to increase stress and possibly conflict as well.
3.    Try practicing Mindfulness strategies
When stress builds up or seems to be unavoidable, mindfulness techniques can help keep our mental health in check. Mindfulness techniques are a broad category of actions and thinking styles which encourage the awareness and acceptance of moment-by-moment experiences. Mindfulness activities are easy to learn and incorporate into your day. Check out this link to some great, easy mindfulness exercises. 

Mindfulness techniques can be practiced by yourself, as well as your friends and family. If you suspect someone close to you might be feeling a bit stressed this festive season, why not encourage some Mindfulness to ease the tension?

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Is childhood trauma a disability?

A landmark court ruling in the United States has found that children who experience trauma and multiple adversities could be considered to have a disability. Importantly, the judge in this case identified that not all children affected by trauma end up being disabled by their experiences of trauma, but that some children certainly do.

These findings have come out of a court case that has seen a class action taken by students of a high school, claiming that as the school was not trauma informed and trauma sensitive, their needs were not met and they were disadvantaged within this system. They claim that the school did not recognise that the behavioural, emotional and learning difficulties they were facing were caused by their exposure to trauma and adversity and that the school could have done more to meet their needs.

This is certainly an interesting development in the current response to children exposed to trauma and adversity. The research clearly indicates that for some children who experience repeated exposure to trauma and adversity early in life and are without opportunities for safety and adequate care, there are changes within the architecture of the brain that lead to learning difficulties and emotional health difficulties across the lifespan. This research has led to many services that work with children to become, at the least trauma informed, through to trauma sensitive and trauma focused. 

In thinking further about the long term impact of child trauma and adversity, we can turn to recent Australian research that has looked at the impact of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect on adverse health outcomes across the lifespan: 

"Overall, an estimated 23.5% of self-harm, 20.9% of anxiety disorders and 15.7% of depressive disorders burden in males; and 33.0% of self-harm, 30.6% of anxiety disorders and 22.8% of depressive disorders burden in females was attributable to child maltreatment."

Long-term mental health conditions are often associated with disability, that is, with a long term impairment in several areas of functioning in the person's life. According to the UK government, a mental health condition is considered to be a disability if it has a long term effect on your normal day to day activity and in Australia mental health conditions are included under the National Disability Insurance Scheme

The pertinent question really is, would it be helpful for those who have experienced significant trauma and adversity as a child to be identified as having a disability? This is not a question that is easy to answer, though it is clear that if there was greater recognition of the impacts of these experiences, there may be greater access to funding and appropriate assistance. This may see some of the impacts, especially in the area of learning and emotional health, be addressed earlier on and more effectively, which would certainly be beneficial both in the short and the long term.

Through the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse we have had a rare glimpse into the long term impacts that childhood trauma can have. As one courageous man Grahame Rundle has told the Commission:

"The truth is that we don't ever forget and get over it,

Once your childhood is taken from you, it's gone forever."

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Skills in emotions: A key to children's success

Understanding emotions and learning how to manage them is a skill that children learn, it is not one that is inbuilt. From the time they are born, most kids will have a carer that is loving, warm and attuned to the baby's emotions. If you watch many parents of young children, you will see that they are consistently providing their child with feedback on how the child is travelling emotionally. They help them to navigate the ups and downs that their child feels. They may say "You look happy, you are enjoying that, that feels good" or "you seem angry, how can I help you calm down" or even " you are sad, I can give you a hug to help you feel better". 

Children need this consistent feedback on their emotional state to make sense of the big, overwhelming emotions that they are experiencing. Initially, this feedback helps them to be able to name their emotions and recognise when they feel angry, sad, happy etc. Then, they start to learn that other people can help them feel better. Eventually, they start to learn that they can calm themselves down, or that they can help themselves to feel better. 

By the time they get to school, most kids will be on the path to starting to understand and manage their emotions. We know from the research that this skill, of being able to understand and manage emotions, is central to building learning skills and developing and keeping friendships. 

But what about the kids who don't get this consistent feedback from a young age? 

Children who are exposed to lots of adversities or trauma from a young age are more likely to miss out on this development of understanding their emotions. The reasons that they miss out on this are complex, but some of the reasons that parents or carers may not be able to help their children develop this skill include: 

  • multiple adversities that lead to family stress, with less attention to the baby or child's needs. 
  • parents or carers who did not have this skill taught to them when they were a child. 
  • parental mental health difficulties or substance abuse may mean that the parent or carer may not be attuned to the needs of the baby or child. 
  • overly chaotic households where little or no rhythm or routine means less time for the baby or child. 
Children may also live in environments where they are overwhelmed by stress, uncertainty or fear, and without someone that can help them make sense of this. 

When children have not had the opportunities presented to them to develop this understanding and ability to manage their emotions, it can potentially lead to difficulties in several different areas of their life. This can include: 
  • difficulties being settled and calm in the classroom, which can interrupt their learning or mean that they are unable to take in the information they need. 
  • overwhelming emotions can lead to behaviours that may be disruptive. 
  • difficulties in making and keeping friends. 
  • behaviours at home that parents and carers may find tricky to deal with. 
The ARC (Attachment, Self - Regulation, Competency) framework for intervention features emotional skill development as one of the core features of working with children who have experienced trauma and multiple adversity. If offers a theoretically based way of working directly with children, with parents and carers, and within systems to build skills for children in emotion recognition, modulation and expression. Here, at the Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network (ACATLGN) we are using the ARC framework for our trauma sensitive schools project, TRUST in Schools. 

What can be done? 

All children need to be helped to develop the skills to recognise, understand and manage their emotions. It will make a real difference to how they travel through life. Adults involved in the lives of children can do this by talking about: 
  • their own emotions, including the difficult emotions. 
  • ways to manage emotions and modelling positive ways to manage emotions. 
  • how emotions get bigger and smaller and change over time. 
and also by: 
  • helping children to label their emotions. You can say "you seem sad", or "you are yelling a lot, I think you are feeling angry". You don't have to get this right every time - the child will let you know if your guess is not correct! 
  • suggesting ways that the child can manage their emotions: "Maybe if you talk to me about what is going on, you will feel better"; "Sometimes running and jumping around can help people feel better when they are angry". 
  • making a real attempt to try to understand what is happening for the child and communicating to them that you care about them and how they are feeling. 
  • not punishing children for some of the difficult behaviours that may arise out of their overwhelming emotions. 

Social and emotional learning programs implemented at a school wide level and incorporated into the curriculum are also a great way to help all children to understand and manage their emotions, but these programs are additionally beneficial for children who have experienced adversity and trauma. 

Whether you are a parent or carer, a therapist, an educator, or someone else who works with children, we can all spend more time thinking about how to help kids build the skills they need to understand and manage their emotions. 

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Domestic violence and children

We have heard so much in the media recently about the lasting and damaging impacts of domestic violence. Domestic violence is a long under acknowledged problem in all of our communities. It is mostly women who experience the dangerous, abusive and violent behaviours that is domestic violence. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that almost 1.5 million women have experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner. When we look at these figures we know that this means that there are also many, many, many children who have witnessed this violence. 

Children do not need to directly experience physical or sexual abuse to be impacted by it. Being a witness to violence, living in a house that is permeated by fear, is enough to have a significant impact on the wellbeing of children. Children experience domestic violence in many ways. They may be a witness to violence, either by seeing what is happening or by hearing it. For many children, hearing the safety of their parent or carer threatened, especially when this occurs over and over again, will be a terrifying experience that stays with them forever. 

We know from so much research that has come out in recent years, that witnessing domestic violence potentially threatens children's physical and psychological wellbeing, as well as their social functioning, and their ability to engage at school and learn. Of course, all children are affected differently, and some children may be more resilient or have protective factors that mean that they will not be as greatly impacted. 

The potential impacts

Exposure to violence in the family has similar impacts on many children that are common to other experiences of adversity or trauma. We generally see these impacts in the area of a child's emotional functioning, mental health, relationships, development and learning. In fact, we know that some of these impacts may last past childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. 

Children exposed to domestic violence can live in a state of fear and heightened arousal. They may be overly anxious and sometimes see threat or danger outside of the home when there is none. These children may be easily startled or may become easily defensive and ready to protect themselves. They can frequently be very sensitive to the verbal and non-verbal cues that others express and may relate these back to their own experience. For example, at school, when a teacher raises their voice to gain the attention of the whole class, this may be perceived as a threatening situation and the response to this may be to try to escape the situation, to try to defend themselves or to withdraw and try not to be noticed. 

Children who live in environments where domestic violence is prevalent can also experience difficulties in their attachments and relationships. When children are on alert, they may misread the signals of non-threatening others, as described above, and this can get in the way of forming friendships and other relationships with significant adults, such as teachers.

We also know that children who are affected by domestic violence may have difficulties at school with learning. When children live in situations where stress is ongoing, it can flood their brains with stress hormones, such as cortisol, that can interfere with memory, concentration and executive functioning. This can mean that children may find it more difficult to concentrate, more difficult to remember instructions and what they have already been taught and more difficult to use skills such as problem solving in the classroom. All of this can interfere with a child's ability to learn and can possibly mean that they may miss bits of learning or start to slip behind their peers. 

Where to from here? 

Domestic violence is a serious issue that needs more attention in our society. We have outlined only some of the potential impacts of domestic violence on children above, there are certainly other impacts that we have not included here. The impact of domestic violence does not just end when the victims are safe and away from the perpetrator. The impacts can last through childhood, adolescence and on to adulthood. This makes it an even more crucial issue to be addressed. Reducing domestic violence also means reducing the incidence of mental health difficulties and learning difficulties that result for many children who are exposed. And the benefits of this can last a lifetime. 

For more information on the impact of domestic violence, and other adversities, on children, please visit our websites: 

For families -

For people working with children -