Above: It is vital parents validate their children’s feelings in relation to traumatic experiences. (Image licensed by Shuttlestock).

When the child experiences trauma, the response of the parent or primary caregiver is, of course, of vital importance to how the child copes with his/her experience, how resilient s/he is in the face of it and how badly affected s/he is by it.

THE PARENTING CAPACITY CONTINUUM :

According to Thierry, parental response to the child’s traumatic experience lies upon a continuum which he calls the parenting (or environmental) capacity continuum.

  • At one end of the continuum, representing parental responses to the child’s traumatic experience which are most helpful to the child, the parents’ response is described as WARM, CARING and VERBAL.
  • At the opposite end of the continuum, representing parental responses to the child’s traumatic experience which are most harmful to him/her, the parents’ behaviour is described as INFLICTING FURTHER PUNISHMENT ON THE CHILD FOR TALKING ABOUT HIS/HER TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES.
  • Between these two extremes, parents whose response to the child’s traumatic experiences fall into the middle part of the continuum are described as BULLYING AND NOT FACILITATING PROCESSING.

Let’s look at each of these three descriptions of possible parental responses to their traumatized child’s emotional and psychological needs in a little more detail:

  1. Parents who display warmth and care and are verbal in relation to the child’s traumatic experience:

Such parents are likely to have had a long-term, consistent, loving, nurturing and caring relationship with the child and to have developed a strong and healthy emotional bond with him/her.

Furthermore, parents whose responses lie on this end of the continuum tend to encourage the child to talk about (and, therefore, verbally process) his/her concerns, fears, worries and anxieties.

Unsurprisingly, children who receive such a parental response to their traumatic experiences are, all else being equal, the most likely to develop emotional resilience, mentally process their experiences in a healthy way and recover from the effects of their trauma.

      2.  Parents who inflict further punishment upon the child for talking about his/her traumatic experience:

At this end of the continuum, the child receives negative consequences from the parent if s/he talks about his/her traumatic experience or about the adverse effect it has had on him/her. Children in this situation may fear their parents and the punishment they will inflict they  (i.e. the children) dare defy this imposition of silence. An example would be that of a child who has an alcoholic and abusive father but is never permitted to speak of it.

Again, unsurprisingly, a child who finds him/herself at this end of the continuum will be seriously impaired in his/her ability to process his/her traumatic experiences and, therefore, the adverse effects of these experiences, all else being equal, will be considerably more severe, and of a longer duration, than those a child at the opposite end of the spectrum (see 1, above) suffers.

      3.   Parents who are bullying and fail to facilitate the child in naturally processing his/her traumatic experience:

In the middle part of the continuum, parents are described by Thierry’s model as being bullying and as not helping the child to process his/her traumatic experiences. Such parents do not have a strong emotional bond with their child and might be dismissive in their attitude towards the feelings the child has in response to his/her traumatic experience. Alternatively, such parents may even bully their children as a means of inhibiting their desire to express their feelings. Because of these kinds of parental responses, children subjected to them are discouraged from naturally processing (e.g. by talking about it or acting out their feelings through play) what they have been through.

Therefore, children represented by the middle part of the continuum are likely to find their ability to recover from their traumatic experiences significantly impaired, though not to the degree that might occur in the case of children represented by the extreme, negative end (see 2, above) of the continuum.

Conclusion:

The above model reminds us of the crucial importance that those who have experienced childhood trauma are provided with emotional support, especially from those closest to them but also from wider society, in order that they are able to process what has happened to them and to have their traumatic experiences validated.

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

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