Having money in your pocket and food on the table does not make you immune to trauma. However, what I know from our work in Aberlour is that the stress for families of living in poverty makes them more vulnerable to the impact of trauma and makes recovery much harder.
Working with families living in poverty, one of the things I see at Aberlour is the daily state of fear for many parents over whether they can meet their child’s basic survival needs of food and warmth. This chronic level of fear leads to traumatic stress where the parent’s brain and body are on high alert to threat and the parent’s ability to problem solve and attentiveness to others is compromised.
Traumatic stress can critically damage the parent’s capacity to relate to their child.
Traumatic stress can mean that the parent is less emotionally available to the child, more reactive in their parenting and this can have a profound impact on the child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development.
At the recent More Than My Trauma conference, which Aberlour hosted alongside our partners, I heard Dr. Bruce Perry remind us that a child’s stress response baseline is set in the first two months of life. If a child is growing up in poverty, with a caregiver who is struggling to live with their own trauma, this can result in the baby’s own stress response becoming over sensitised. This can then impact the brain development of the baby, especially the areas of the brain responsible for language, executive functioning, and memory. This can have a lasting impact throughout a child’s life.
Dr. Perry explained that ”the best way that we can help a baby is to ensure that its caregiver’s needs are met, and their trauma is attended to”.
The experience of long term trauma can wire the brain differently to the ‘norm’.
Nobody can be blamed for doing what their brain is hard-wired to do. Working with families affected by trauma, our challenge at Aberlour is about being there at the right time. To help parents who have experienced trauma to develop skills and build new connections. To try and help and support parents with their parenting, helping their children to develop positive brain connections.
Dr. Perry also told us that “where a family has relational wealth and connectedness to others this leads to more successful recovery from trauma”. At Aberlour, we aim to work alongside children and parents where there has been trauma within the family that is impacting on the family’s relationships, by helping to build and develop relationships. We help families re-connect socially and with their community.
However, poverty often results in children and families becoming socially isolated preventing them from developing social connections. The associated shame and stigma that families living in poverty can experience often means that children and parents have limited friendships. For many families who are living with trauma, we so often see that food insecurity, rent arrears, and/or debt are at the forefront of parents’ minds. We work alongside families to address these issues before we even begin any therapeutic work – and this can take a long time.
This week we recognise Challenge Poverty Week
and it is reassuring to see so many organisations, campaigners, and activists engaging with policymakers and decision-makers about how we find solutions to reducing and ending poverty. However, I also find it hard knowing that so many children and families in Scotland continue to live in poverty. I worry about the children and families we work with as I know there is no quick fix and I know that for many this will continue. At Aberlour, we will continue to do what we can.
Being there for families to help them recover from the trauma they are living with requires time and trust.
We help to build positive relationships and support families to develop connections. Recognising and responding to the conditions and circumstances that families are living in is crucial to how we do this. This means making sure families have the means to live and function as families. Only when we do this can we begin to help families recover from the trauma they are living with.
Addressing poverty and the financial uncertainty that so many families experience can help relieve the additional poverty-related stress for many struggling families. By removing the toxic stress and anxiety that poverty brings to already traumatised families, we can finally begin to help ensure the necessary conditions to help children and families recover from their trauma.
Written by Sharon Laing, Assistant Director of Aberlour