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Blocked Trust

Children and father reading a book together

Dan Hughes has helped us to understand that within blocked trust there are three great losses for the children. These are the capacity for comfort, curiosity and joy within relationships. Dan describes blocked trust as ‘When young children block the pain of rejection and the capacity to delight in order to survive in a world without comfort and joy’ (Baylin and Hughes 2014).  He goes on to explore how curiosity and the need for comfort and joy, essential parts of being human, are lost in developmental trauma. Finding these again is an enormous challenge when biologically as well as behaviourally the children are prepared for a world where they anticipate danger in relationships rather than safety.

Comfort

Children who have experienced a lack of the care they need early in life anticipate that they will not be comforted when they need this. If you don’t expect comfort then it is safer not to feel emotional distress, if you don’t need it then it won’t be so hard to be comfortless. This is one of the reasons that children display such controlling behaviours, being in control can help them to suppress emotional distress and the need for others. Control reduces the need for comfort. A great sadness and a challenge in caring for children with developmental trauma is their fear of appearing vulnerable. Vulnerability exposes their need for carers. They may demand and cling while also pushing away, or they may be self-reliant, acting as if they have no need of you, but either way, they stay in control. This feels safer than being exposed as vulnerable, even though in vulnerability they would elicit and receive care and comfort in a way that would allow them to be soothed.

Joy

Finding it difficult to receive comfort, these children also have a reduced capacity to be in a relationship that is joyful. The children are highly tuned into signs of unavailability or potential hurt, they are exquisitely sensitive, perceiving this in parental actions that are actually benign. Danger is seen everywhere, and the children remain hyper-alert. A defensive nervous system is governing them, this means that they are ready at any moment to defend against danger – the fight or flight response – but they are not at the same time able to relax and enjoy the moment. It is not possible to be mobilised for danger and for safety at the same time and extremely hard therefore for these children to relax and to be able to enjoy and have fun with their carers. They need to experience a high level of safety over a long length of time before their hyper-vigilant nervous system can take some time off, the switch from defensive control to relax social engagement does not happen easily

Curiosity

In building trust for the child, the carer is also helping the child to discover the wonder of curiosity, it is hard to imagine how curiosity can be lost to children. The drive to know about the world around us is powerful and most evident in childhood. Children seek to understand and explore. Trauma rips through this curiosity, this is because to manage trauma we must be alert to the dangers we imagine are ever-present. Just try to relax and read a book when you have heard an unusual sound somewhere in the house and you will get a small insight into what this is like. Once we’re watching or listening for the next danger, we cannot also be attending to the things right in front of us. Curiosity absorbs us in the small things around us, trauma focuses away from this onto the bigger dangers we imagine to be ever-present.

When children experience blocked trust, they become focused on perceived dangers from within the relationships that surround them. The relationships that could guide them out of this to help them discover comfort, curiosity and joy are also the relationships that they perceive as their greatest danger. The children learn to manage without the relationships and in the process lose the chance of comfort curiosity and joy. Thus, the children develop the controlling behaviours that are such a trademark of trauma. They cannot trust in the carer’s good intentions and so they resist their authority, they cannot believe in unconditional support and love and so they are not open to parental influence. Developmentally traumatised children trust in themselves rather than others and this is the source of their controlling behaviours. The children are taking charge of their own safety, it feels so much safer to be in charge than to be open to the influence of others.

When the parenting environment changes, children with blocked trust anticipate the same difficulties as they experienced previously. The carers want to demonstrate their unconditional love and the capacity they now have to care for and cherish the child, the children cannot believe in this. It is safer to continue to be alert for the danger that was present in the past and it is therefore anticipated in their future.

There’s a unique time in infancy when parents can unconditionally care for their child without the need for discipline. As the infant matures to toddlerhood the parent also has to bring in some discipline, teaching the child what is safe and acceptable behaviour. Unconditional love continues but there are now some conditions on behaviour. Behavioural support sits alongside unconditional love. Children who have experienced unconditional love in infancy can manage this addition to the parenting that they experience, this is because they trust in the parent’s good intentions.

Where children have not had the experience of unconditional love in infancy the carer cannot bring discipline and boundaries in on top of a secure emotional connection already built with the child. Instead, the carer needs to build security through an emotional connection at the same time as putting restrictions on behaviour. These children are already doubting their lovability and anticipating that care comes with conditions. Discipline and boundaries are not viewed as frustrating restrictions on their behaviour done in their best interest. Instead, they are seen as evidence that the relationship continues to be conditional and thus opportunities for emotional connection are not taken while restrictions are fought against. The building of trust and offering of an unconditional relationship cannot be developed first, acting as a foundation for the provision of behavioural support, these have to be developed together rather than sequentially.

Parenting children with blocked trust

Parenting needs to help children to recover from blocked trust. This is done through continually demonstrating and making explicit that the child is unconditionally loved. To do this the carer needs to attune to the child’s internal experience, find empathy for this experience and help the child to know that his feelings are understood. It is not always easy to know what a child is feeling or thinking especially when they’ve learnt to hide it from other adults. Carers need to learn to be mind readers, making guesses about how the child might be feeling is good. Next carers need to accept this experience and remember that feelings are neither right nor wrong they just are. Children need help to notice and make sense of their inner life, importantly they need to know that it is OK to have difficult and negative feelings and thoughts. As adults, we all have strong angry feelings at times but mostly, we keep the thought to ourselves, take care of our strong feelings and then go on to manage the relationship or situation. Children are much less able to do this. They have strong feelings and express their thoughts; they need us to help them manage these strong emotions and not become judgmental about what they’re saying/doing. Accept the statement/ behaviour as a symbol of the strong feeling and connect with this emotional experience.

Example:

Child: ‘I could kill you right now’

Carer: ‘You are feeling so angry right now, I expect you are angry because… if that is how you were feeling I’m not surprised that you were so cross’

As carers we don’t need to say that the feelings or thoughts are right or wrong, just acknowledge this is how it feels right now for them. This acceptance and understanding which is conveyed with empathy will soothe the child. This connection is what helps the child to feel safer and overtime to start to trust in the carer’s good intentions and to believe that they are acceptable to them and that maybe they are loved unconditionally.

Check – Take a quick check of their basic and sensory needs. Are they tired or hungry? Do they need to change clothes? Are they seeking sensory input or deprivation?

Connect – You know your child. Maybe they need some connection through a story, a hug or just sitting together. Take a moment to connect without distraction.

Coach – If you can, take a moment to process with your child. When they are calm, talk about how they were feeling. Recognise and acknowledge those feelings.

Unwind – Allow the time to process through play. Having a routine of quiet, independent play helps a child unwind from a busy day and brings them some autonomy.

Further reading: Everyday Parenting with security and love By Kim S Goulding

www.traumainformedschools.co.uk/dr-dan-hughes-blocked-trust-and-blocked-care

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