Transforming the impact of childhood adversity

Posted on: 4th May 2017

Body & Soul has been working for over 20 years with families affected by HIV, but it has always been about more than a virus – our members are some of the poorest and most marginalised people in the UK, with some of the most complex health and social care needs, often stemming from adversity in childhood.

 

We are now working with other groups who are disproportionately affected by childhood adversity – children and teens who have been adopted and young adults who have attempted suicide. Here Katherine Cox, Body & Soul’s head of therapeutic services, explains how our programmes of support go to the heart of the causes of many health and social problems.

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We are born relational beings in search of connection: a newborn reliably turns towards the smell of its mother’s milk as opposed to other women’s breastmilk; a baby will turn to human stimuli in preference to other stimuli and will orientate to faces in particular. It is now more reliably understood that we develop an egoic self – a sense of ourselves as separate and differentiated beings – from and through connections with others.

A child who has enough reliable, positive, consistent, safe and loving moments of connection will develop a secure attachment style. Their relationships with themselves and others will feel trustworthy: they will have a basic, core sense of OK-ness about themselves and the world. A child who, for whatever reason, does not have enough of these positive, loving, nurturing, reliable moments of connection will grow up feeling the world is less safe, less trustworthy; they will have a less secure sense of themselves within it.

We have all experienced difficulties growing up; no parent is ever perfect. But if a child has experienced significant childhood adversity, with too few of those nurturing moments, then the research now reliably tells us that they will struggle both as a child and as an adult.

If a child experiences chronic stress, their physiological system will become accustomed to operating in a hyper-aroused state, with increased levels of adrenalin and cortisol. Children who have experienced this will find it hard to regulate themselves because they live in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’.

Our work with children and their families

This is why our services at Body & Soul are so crucial both to children and their families. Because of the whole-person, integrated nature of our services, we are able to approach our members’ difficulties in a number of interconnected ways, all of which positively reinforce each other:

Specific therapeutic input for children

Our play and music therapists work intensively with children who are experiencing particularly concerning levels of adversity to mitigate the impact of their situation. Giving a child a space and a dedicated person to allow them to express their feelings in a safe environment is an invaluable resource.

Our service for all children

Our service for children provides a consistent, safe, loving, caring environment. In a world of changing homes and uncertain family relationships, Body & Soul can be a place of consistency and security in a child’s life.

Specific therapeutic input for adults

In all but a very few cases, parents genuinely want to do the best for their children, but they may need support in order to do so. Our specific therapeutic input for adults assists them in developing empathy for their children, understanding their world and being able to enter into it. In addition, the therapeutic interventions for adults improve their own wellbeing, self-compassion and self-care which means they are better able to care for their children.

Our work with children who are part of a Child In Need Plan or Child Protection Plan

We have a number of child members who are subject to a Child In Need or Child Protection plan. Statutory intervention into the life of one’s child can be a profoundly frightening experience and in these cases we act as a bridge between the parent and social services, ensuring that the work is truly one of partnership.

Members, staff and volunteers mixing in the reception area at Body & Soul.

Members, staff and volunteers mixing in the reception area at Body & Soul.

Our work with adults who have experienced childhood adversity

Those of us who work with troubled adults know that childhood adversity and trauma are usually the root cause of difficulties in later life, but services are often funded by and arranged in relation to particular current ‘symptoms’.

At Body & Soul we offer a community model. Members join us for life and we work to create a connection with each individual. Research tells us what we already know – trauma and childhood adversity are about lack of connection, loss of connection, broken connection or abuse of connection, and at Body & Soul we create connections that heal, connections that last, connections that transform. Research into neuroplasticity shows us that the unhelpful patterns that can result from childhood adversity can be changed in later life.

We offer a range of interventions to nourish and sustain, all of which are important in different ways for different members at different times according to their particular circumstances. Everyone takes part in a shared meal which not only nourishes the body but also provides positive, celebratory connection; everyone participates in themed workshops which encourage discussion and debate, promote knowledge and foster connection; everyone has access to talking and complementary therapies and casework support; and, most of all, everyone is welcomed, celebrated, cared for and made to feel at home.

We know that the ability to manage difficulties in the present is hugely influenced by whether someone had a nourishing childhood or a childhood characterised by adversity. Rather than focusing on presenting problems, we seek to heal the original trauma, which fosters a resilient relationship to challenges in the present. The recent research into trauma treatment all points to the same thing: trauma is about loss of connection – to self and to other – and healing is about mending connection. That is what we do.



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