Early Childhood Intervention
Supporting traumatized children
Abuse and neglect can be traumatic for all children, especially infants and toddlers. While every child and every situation is different, traumatic experiences can overwhelm young children and lead to long-term developmental challenges across all developmental domains.
Caring for a child who has been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused or neglected may seem to be an arduous, even impossible task. It helps to remember that all children learn within the context of relationships. Consequently, building a strong relationship with a child can have a lasting impact on all areas of development.
One method of building a relationship with a child is joint attention. In this technique, one individual alerts another to an object by means of eye gazing, pointing, or other verbal or non-verbal indications. The caregiver gazes at a toddler, points to an object such as a red ball, and then returns her gaze to the toddler, for example. Most 8- to 10-month-old children can follow where the caregiver’s eyes are looking, and all typically developing 11- to 14-month-old children can do so.
Joint attention requires the integration of many skills across domains. Following the caregiver’s gaze, for instance, demands muscular development in the eye, cognitive interpretation of the focus, and the ability to focus or attend to the red ball. The ability to identify the caregiver’s intention affects a child’s ability to learn language and direct the attention of others. With language development in particular, joint attention is important for developing comprehension, word production, and word learning. Joint attention also influences socio-emotional development and the ability to take part in normal relationships
It’s not hard to see how a traumatic experience can hamper a child’s development. Typically developing infants seek out relationships with caregivers by establishing eye contact, while a traumatized infant may avoid eye contact. Fortunately, caregivers can teach joint attention and positively affect a child’s development.
What else can we do to support development? As much as possible, expand the circle of caring relationships. All children need sustained patterns of caring, responsive interactions. In addition to the child’s primary caregiver, other relatives, friends, neighbors, and teachers are well equipped to provide the securely attached relationships that are essential to optimum development.
Additionally, you can promote health-giving routines and practices. Consistent, predicable routines, such as bedtimes and mealtimes, help young children learn to manage their energy levels and their emotions, and enhances their sense of trust. Children who regularly take part in physical activity tend to have a more positive body image, better health and quality of life, and more positive family and peer relationships.
Building strong relationships with young children helps support their social and emotional development, communication skills, thinking skills, and exploration and play skills. Caring, committed relationships can also help heal the hurt of trauma.