Survey reveals 8 in 10 parents who care for victims of childhood trauma experience violence and poor mental health

The majority of parents caring for children who have experienced trauma report that they have experienced violence and suffered poor mental health, with little to no help from the institutions that should be supporting them.

The survey, carried out by the Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma (CoECT), leading UK experts in the field of therapeutic parenting strategies, received 1,125 responses from parents who have adopted, fostered, or cared for children who have experienced trauma.

A huge 79% of parents said they had experienced violence from a child in their care. CoECT has numerous examples of social workers failing to intervene appropriately despite recommendations from expert psychiatrists. It is commonplace for local authorities to have disagreed with expert opinion leading to extreme escalations, including violence, in homes.

The survey also concerningly shows that 85% of parents say that caring for a child who has experienced trauma has negatively impacted their mental health. There are a multitude of factors that can contribute to poor mental health, but the most common issue CoECT hear about is the lack of support available to parents openly asking for it.

Given the above, it is unsurprising that nine out of ten parents feel that teachers, therapists and social workers simply do not understand the impact of child trauma and that you have to interact with children who have been through this, differently. For example, traditional methods of discipline such as time in isolation, or stern responses to outbursts, are not appropriate behaviour management strategies for children who have experienced trauma.

Sarah Naish, CEO and Founder of the Centre of Excellence in Child Trauma, former social worker and parent of five adopted siblings, said:

“The results of the survey were shocking to read, but sadly not surprising considering the stories we hear on a daily basis.

“When children from trauma lash out and attack their foster parents and adopters, people need to understand that this isn’t a behaviour that should be considered ‘common’ or ‘normal’. Local authorities, social services and schools are failing to recognise the most basic causes of child to parent violence or even to acknowledge it as a significant problem.

“These Foster Parents and Adopters, ask for training and support to keep themselves and their children safe. Yet, in the society we live in, local authorities are more interested in covering their own backs, directing blame and judgement towards the parents, rather than providing the necessary support.

“Social Workers are not adequately trained in child trauma, and after they have qualified local authorities often do little to put this essential training in place.

“It is unsurprising that the mental health of those that have chosen to care for these children is suffering, as a result.

“We need to see local authorities taking a more holistic view, understanding the best way to care for children who have experienced trauma and stepping up support for parents as part of this process.”

Emily Smith (this is a pseudonym), who has faced difficulty getting the right support for her adopted daughter, said:

“My daughter has been violent at home for years and the distinct impression I’ve felt when reaching out to the school and local authorities for help, was that my parenting was to blame.

“When she was violent at school, they ended up doing nothing as there was only a term left to go. Throughout my daughter’s entire school life, I can name two teaching professionals that took the pains to understand her, rather than writing her off. I have even been told to stop telling teachers the problems I was experiencing at home as it was too upsetting for them.

“Similarly, I have been told by a social worker in charge of my daughter’s case to stop sending her emails as the volume and content of them was too overwhelming.

“When the violence at home really escalated, my husband and I requested restraint training to keep ourselves and our daughter safe, only to become the subject of an investigation and told that if we restrained our daughter we would face allegations of abuse. Having suffered several black eyes and with defence bruising all over my forearms and back, I had to state that our family was at risk of breakdown to get any additional support. Throughout this period the local authority repeatedly refused to act on the professional advice given.

“The strain of the situation eventually contributed to the breakdown of my marriage.  My own mental health suffered and I was medicated with antidepressants for years, and the after effects and ongoing struggle to ensure that my daughter has the best care possible and is properly protected mean that I have a struggle with depression, exhaustion and anxiety to this day.”

Jane Mitchell, independent trainer in adoption, fostering and social care, said:

“One of the courses I run specifically deals with managing violent behaviour and in my experience the parents in attendance see this as a last hope, having been disbelieved and vilified by the local authorities that should have been helping them.

“These are parents living under the constant threat of violence, or allegations against themselves, yet they still show the most incredible commitment to and love for their children.

“These parents are often tearful, either because they are finally in a safe place where they are listened to and believed, or because I can actually give them a structure to approach the behaviours of their children. The impact of the training itself can be distressing – particularly when dealing with physical intervention – because the reality they are facing is so far removed from their wishes and dreams for their family.

“The course has been instrumental in helping to reinforce and maintain families, yet the local authorities will often not fund the course or allow foster parents to attend because of the physical intervention element. This is irresponsible when you consider the injuries that parents sustain at the hands of their children and also doesn’t take into account that children, full of fear and adrenalin, can be a danger to themselves if they do not have parents that know how to properly deescalate the situation.

“This training is very much the last hope for parents, who themselves feel like they are the last hope in helping their children lead normal lives.”

Sami Byrne, a teacher, said:

“I can attest to the fact that the majority of teachers do not understand the impact of child trauma and how you need to treat these pupils differently.

“There is nowhere near enough training for teachers and schools on trauma awareness, it is only through my own personal reading that I came to understand the topic and adapted my teaching accordingly.

“The will amongst teachers is there, but schools aren’t equipped to help these students. This is partly down to the massive financial constraints they are under due to the underfunding of schools.

“The government needs to grab the bull by the horns and focus on understanding how we should be supporting these children. There needs to be a change of approach and training for ministers, local authorities, academies, senior leaders in education, teachers and student teachers. The current half a day provision for training is not acceptable.

“The whole approach to education needs to change and is in need of reform. The pupil premium has been positive, bit it is not enough. We all want children to succeed at school, but unless we are prepared to look at the comprehensive, complex needs of each child and all stakeholders are aligned, we will continue to put a plaster over the problem, rather than allowing them the opportunity to flourish.”

Kelly Dallow, Manager of TRUE Fostering, a specialist therapeutic fostering agency, said:

“Whilst the statistics sadden me, I am not surprised.  We receive a high proportion of fostering applications from existing foster parents.  They tell us that when children express their trauma through violence and maladaptive behaviours, they have felt isolated and blamed.

“This response, from supposedly supporting professionals, has obvious negative effects on a foster parent’s mental wellbeing.

“TRUE Fostering pride themselves on offering levels of support which take account of research into the impact on mental health of foster parents caring for traumatised children, but we are in the minority!

“The results are that our fostering families experience greater stability and our children are achieving better outcomes. Any local authority could achieve this with training and a small amount of effort.”

First Steps in De-escalating Challenging or Aggressive Behaviours

Before we start, please take a moment to remember the trauma your child has endured in their early life – whether this was in utero, as a result of maternal illness, post birth trauma or as a result of Domestic Violence, Abuse, neglect or any of the other reasons that children can have a challenging start in life.

Your child had to learn to survive. They were powerless. They had to use all the tools at their disposal – but these were so limited – they could cry, scream and move their arms and legs, but with no ability to speak, move with intention or even know what their needs were they were uniquely vulnerable. Now when they have a survival trigger, they have new skills. They can lash out both verbally and physically. They are super strong because their bodies have adrenalin fuelling a fight flight response. Finally, they feel powerful – they are not vulnerable and helpless anymore. They can prove to the adult that they are strong. Alongside this, it is important to remember that the triggers for their fight/flight response when it comes to adults and basic needs being met is stored in implicit memory – so it is an emotional and sensory memory, and as such not readily accessible to reason (such as CBT therapy). To help them recover, we have to re-train their brains. That is the hard bit, requiring time, patience and the ability to be an endless broken record to develop new connections and ideas.

Finally – practise self-care to keep your own brain connected so you do not go to low brain responses but forgive yourself for slipping up!

Related information/handouts from NATP:

1. Managing Violent behaviour Course Day one option

2. CPR for the Brain Handout – can be found in the members area under resources.

3. The Internal Working Model Handout – can be found in the members area under resources.

4. The Trauma Room Handout – can be found in the members area under resources.

5. Blank Visual timetable – can be found on the NATP shop.