by Cathy Gunning
Showing empathy creates calm
Showing and demonstrating empathy to children who have experienced trauma and have attachment difficulties, can help them to heal and change.
I heard Dr Margot Sunderland, a powerful advocate of this approach, speak at a conference about helping children in their emotions by showing and demonstrating empathy. Dr Margot Sunderland is a child psychotherapist and Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health in London. She has published over 20 books in the area of child mental health.
Empathic listening has a healing impact on the brain and mind
It leads to good vagal tone, calming down the heart rate and supporting emotional regulation. When a child is emotionally regulated, the medulla in the brain is calmed and a trauma response is lessened.
Vagal tone is about an internal process in the body involving the vagus nerve which originates from the medulla part of the brain that is a key component of the nervous system operating our heart, lungs and digestion. An increase in vagal tone slows the heart down. So this means that empathy from an adult to a child creates good vagal tone and thus helps the child to calm down and emotionally regulate.
I recently saw a little girl in a setting who was shouting, “Go away, go away!” to an adult. She was loud, vocal and seemed angry. The adult was trying to talk to her and encourage her to come into a room but the child stayed outside the room. There was a meeting going on inside the room and a voice said, “Just ignore her, she gets like that.” It was all I could do not to say to the little girl, “Oh…. are you feeling cross?” I wanted so much to give her empathy, suggest how she might be feeling and try to reach her in her place of high emotion. I could sense her upset but as a bystander, I felt I could not help or intervene at the time. If I had been a practitioner supporting this child, or a leader in this provision, I would have considered it vital to show empathy to her and help her to become calm. This would be a form of co-regulation, and would in time help to support a language of emotion, and an empathic connected relationship.
There must be many children we can help in this way, by simply responding to them differently, in an attuned way and with calming empathy.
Trauma in early childhood can cause attachment disorders
Dr Margot Sunderland talks about forms of attachment that children might demonstrate depending on their past experiences and trauma that they might have had. Trauma in a baby or young child can affect the brain development and emotions. She says that a child that has experienced traumatic loss could exhibit signs similar to ADHD or conduct disorder and that this loss could be due to grief, separation, adoption, fostering or abuse. She said that children who experience divorce or separation can move children into insecure attachment.
All behaviour is understandable in the context of what happened to that child
Often a child behaves out of flight or fight response, which is from a part of the brain that is hard to over-ride, particularly in young children and children who find it hard to emotionally regulate. Young children of course also find it hard to self regulate because they are learning about feelings and emotions. It is easy to see how early experiences, empathy, trauma and loss all can have such significant impact on how the brain learns to respond in emotion.
The amygdala part of the brain can be triggered to react by an incident that a child experiences which then takes the child back into their traumatic experience. For example, this might happen if a child is shouted at, or if someone is taken away from them. This is a core feeling when the child responds by fight or flight and they might demonstrate panic or anger or aggression.
In this heightened emotion, a child who is responded to with empathy, listening and responding by validating the child’s emotions will feel contained and will be helped to calm down. Children might often be expected to be in control of their emotional regulation but when something triggers that amygdala part of the brain from a traumatic past experience, there is no reason or rationalisation. There is no ability to regulate in that moment. There is just a huge surge of emotion which has to be expressed.
Attachment and trauma awareness
I was very encouraged to hear that repair and healing can happen if adults provide empathic responses, play and attunement. I felt that we can help to make a difference. Dr Margot Sunderland recommends that schools (and I would add all settings) must help to build up the child’s self. Attachment and trauma awareness from practitioners can help in this process.
If we can support children to regulate then they can calm down and strong emotions will lessen or be controlled. Otherwise it is possible that in later life, the child will turn to other sources to help calm down, like drugs and alcohol. We can also help to support children to learn about alternative responses for stress, giving them other options to stimulate endorphins to help them feel good. For example, running, being outside in a green space and music can all induce oxytocin which is a feel good factor and an excellent alternative to a stress response.
A recent joint paper by Adoption UK and NAHT Understanding attachment difficulties is being sent to all schools following recent NICE guidance (October 16) on attachment difficulties. Let us hope that becoming more attachment aware, attuning to children and giving them empathic responses can help in their journey towards help and healing.
A must listen to link
- Exclusion story – child with attachment issues excluded from school by a mum of an adopted child.
Further reading and resources
- Dr Margot Sunderland’s website has further information about her background and work
- Understanding attachment difficulties joint guidance by NAHT and Adoption UK is an excellent starter resource
- Attachment theory into practice by The British Psychological Society (Feb 2007)
- Dr Margot Sunderland’s notes from challenging behaviour and creative interventions presentation to Kent virtual schools June 16
- Integrate Families national centre for trauma and dissociation
- Adoption connections for books and resources on adoption
- Mark Coen (on the attachment and trauma specialists website) states
To be able to understand what a child is trying to communicate is the most satisfying feeling one can have. There is no kid or situation that is hopeless; it is simply a matter of us taking a step back to assess what language is being spoken. Kids and adults from traumatic and dysfunctional childhoods often speak the language of hurt, pain, loss and mistrust. We need to put our preconceptions aside to be receptive to their communication. Only then can we truly understand their needs.
- The attachment continuum from child to adult: how childhood trauma impacts future relationships and behaviour by Mark Coen
- Vagus nerve stimulation Dr Arielle Schwartz
- The thrive approach website for information about neuroscience, attachment theory and child development. This approach is used in some schools to support children.
- Understanding Why by the National Children’s Bureau about understanding attachment and how this can affect education
- Jane Evans’ blogs help us learn and understand more about children and trauma
- Kate Cairns Attachment aware settings information
- Supporting children in distress: the power of parental emotion coaching
Some of our Associates have expertise in this area and can provide training, please contact us to find out more.
This page was updated in Autumn 2019.