When trying to understand why a traumatized child is behaving in a particular way – such as being prone to outbursts of rage aggression or being perpetually withdrawn – it is important to remember that all behaviour carries with it meaning and is a form of (often unconscious) communication.

When someone experiencing a traumatized childhood is behaving in a negative way, which is exacerbating the level of stress any particular family is having to cope with, parents/primary carers may focus solely upon exerting control over the child by using cognitive (e.g. self-instruction, self-praise,, thinking about benefits of achieving a particular goal etc.)and behavioural strategies (e.g. using a rewards chart, creating a family rules board, selective ignoring, having a consistent rewards/consequences approach to the child’s behaviour etc.).

However, an alternative way of intervening is, rather than taking a cognitive or behavioural approach, to take a psychodynamic approach. The psychodynamic approach has the advantage of helping us answer questions such as ‘What are the underlying reasons for the child’s negative behaviour?’ ; ‘What is the child unconsciously trying to communicate through his/her behaviour?’ ; ‘What does the child’s behaviour mean?’ and ‘Why is the child behaving in this way at this particular time?’

Unfortunately, many families wish to avoid taking the psychodynamic approach due to a fear of the emotional pain and guilt digging into and exposing, the deeper reasons for the child’s behaviour is likely to entail (in connection with this, you may wish to read my previously published article entitled: Family Secrets And The Damage They Do).

Psychodynamic Counselling For A Traumatized Childhood

Psychodynamic counselling is predicated upon the notion that how our mind works as an adult is strongly influenced by our early life experiences. The psychodynamic therapist helps the client to understand unconscious forces created by childhood experiences that may be adversely affecting his/her behaviour and interpretation of the world in the present. For example, suppressed anger towards a parent stemming from childhood may be connected to the client’s generalized feelings of aggression towards others in his/her present, adult life.

By resolving previously hidden, unconscious conflicts relating to childhood and bringing exposing them to the revealing light of consciousness, the psychodynamic therapist is able to, through making suggestions about, and offering interpretations of, the client’s present behaviours, increase his/her level of self-awareness and insight into the reasons for these current behaviours.. This increased level of insight and self-awareness is intended to facilitate the client’s ability to behave is different, more positive and beneficial ways both in relation to himself and to others.

Although psychodynamic approaches to trauma derive from Freud’s theories, it is now divided into various different types. However, what they all have in common is that they are all predicated on the notion that whilst our internal psychological conflicts remain unconscious they are more damaging to our mental health and less available to be healthily integrated. Psychodynamic approaches to trauma are now based on various theories, including:

  • Internal defence theories 

The intention of psychodynamic therapy based on internal defence theories is to help the client replace primitive / neurotic defence mechanisms with more mature defence mechanisms

  • Developmental theories

These include object relations theory (this theory was developed by Melanie Kline 1882-1960) that proposes humans are mainly motivated by the need to form meaningful relationships with others; object relations therapists aim to help clients bring into conscious awareness mental images associated with their early life that may cast light upon current relationship problems) and attachment theory developed by John Bowlby (1907 to 1990).

  • Interpersonal theories

Psychoanalysts who base their therapy on these theories believe that both the cause and remedy for mental suffering is due to both relationships with others and the relationship between our different ‘self-states.’


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).