Early trauma can impact the developing child, including their acquisition of skills and abilities, their emotions, their relationships with others and even their brain. Attention focuses on the damage early trauma does and there is a risk that we, their caregivers, see these children as damaged.
How we perceive them and the effects of this are highly important; both in terms of our own experience of caring for them and their experience of being cared for by us.
Self Fulfilling Prophecies
I am particularly interested in the idea of “self-fulfilling-prophecies”. In Psychology, these take the following form. I have a thought. My thought induces an emotion. My emotion activates a behavioural response. My behavioural response precipitates a reaction in others. The reaction of others often confirms my original thought.
Let’s try one. Thought: “nobody loves me”. A common feeling associated with this thought: hostility. Common behavioural responses to feelings of hostility: withdrawal and/or aggression. A common reaction to withdrawal and aggression: admonishments. An inevitable result: confirmation of the original thought. Let’s try another. He is damaged by his early experiences. I feel badly for him. I try to heal him. He keeps pushing me away. He is obviously damaged.
And, another: He is such a good artist. I am so proud of him. I support and encourage his interest in art. His skills develop and he is often affirmed for his artistic achievements. He is such a good artist!
One of my favourite allegories is one made by author Paulo Coelho in his book, The Zahir. Coelho tells the story of two fire-fighters who take a break from firefighting. One has a clean face and the other has a dirty, sooty face. As they are resting beside a stream, one of the fire-fighters washes his face. The question is posed as to which of the fire-fighters washed his face. The answer is the one whose face was clean, because he looked at the other and thought he was dirty.
The idea of the looking-glass-self (Cooley, 1902), whereby a person’s self-concept is tied to their experience of how others view them, has pervaded my life and my practice since I stumbled across the concept as a university student. Empirical studies have shown that the self-concept of children, in particular, is shaped by their experience of how others view them. In my work, this has created a tension between acknowledging the ill-effects of early trauma and encouraging a more helpful focus among those who interact with so-called ‘traumatised children’ in a caregiving role.
I am just as fallible as the next person, and I do not have all the answers. But as a professional who interacts with these children and their caregivers on a daily basis I strive to find a balance between acknowledging and addressing the ill-effects of early trauma and promoting a more helpful perception of these children. I strive to present opportunities to these children for them to experience themselves as good, lovable and capable; to experience me and other adults in their lives as interested in them, as caring towards them and as delighting in their company; as well as experiences that the world is a safe place where their needs are satisfied. I strive to enhance their experience of living and relating, rather than dwelling on repairing the damage that was done to them. Most of all, I see precious little humans whose potential is still yet to be discovered.
Colby Pearce is a Clinical Psychologist and author who specialises in assisting children and families overcome adversity and experience strong and secure attachment relationships. If you’d like to read more of Colby’s work, then you can visit his blog.