Volunteers guide to working with SSF children
Trauma informed practice
All volunteers are highly valued at SSF because they provide new energy and fresh ideas to the organization. It is important however to acknowledge that the children at the protective centre are extremely vulnerable and many suffer from acute emotional and behavioral disturbances as a result of a traumatic past. This document will provide a summary of the psychological difficulties underlying the observable behavior and a list of guidelines that volunteers should keep in mind while engaging with these children.
The main points that will be covered are trauma, disrupted attachment, regressed development, sexualized behaviors and trauma informed guidelines.
It is important to note that trauma, attachment and development are completely interdependent and therefore a traumatized child will inevitably experience a disruption to their attachment style and a regression in their development. Children bear the symptoms of a dysfunctional family and community environment and are often considered “barometers” revealing the nature of the dysfunction.
Trauma is when an acutely stressful event or an accumulation of stressful events exceeds an individual’s ability to cope. Examples of a traumatic experience that the children at SSF may have been subject to are death of one or both parents, sexual abuse, forced marriage, drug addiction, being trafficked at a young age, family violence, extreme poverty or a myriad of other social problems unique to Cambodia. Children are inevitably more vulnerable to trauma because they posses limited coping strategies and are completely dependent on the adults around them for their survival. A child’s brain is highly plastic and forms in a use dependant fashion. Early traumatic experience will reshape the structure of the child’s brain and subject that child to chronic psychological difficulties.
There are two ways that traumatic symptoms will manifest in a child, both of which can be observed in the children at SSF. The first manifestation is called hyperarousal, commonly referred to as fight/flight. A hyperaroused child is constantly agitated, anxious, hyperactive and will have difficulties concentrating in a classroom setting. Children who exhibit these traits have experienced extreme anxiety in the past as their brain is constantly preparing their bodies to fight or flee from an overwhelming threat. The second manifestation is called dissociation, commonly referred to as the freeze response. A dissociated child has turned his/her attention away from the outside world and into the internal world as a technique of psychologically removing oneself from the traumatic experience when fight or flight has not been an option. The child or young person may appear excessively day dreamy, spaced out or just not present despite their physical bodies being present. Volunteers may recognize that children at SSF may exhibit a combination of behaviors along the hyperarousal or dissociation continuum with boys typically being more hyperaroused and girls being more dissociated. These children may also have various somatic complaints such as headaches, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, excessive worry, upset stomachs or physical tension felt in various parts of the body. This is a result of an excess of stress hormones being released into the body on a chronic basis. Volunteers should acknowledge that these children have simply adapted to a traumatic environment in the past and their brains have literally been hardwired to continue coping with the perception of a dangerous world.
Attachment is the term used to describe the way an infant connects to a parent or caregiver in order to have his/her needs met. When parents or caregivers are responsive, reliable and secure the child is likely to develop a secure attachment style which will transfer to all other relationships throughout that individual’s lifespan, including adult romantic relationships. Insecure attachments on the other hand develop when parents or caregivers are uncaring, unreliable, unsafe and chaotic. The children at SSF are likely to develop an insecure attachment style as a product of the sub optimal parenting they have received in their formative years. The three insecure attachment styles are ambivalent, avoidant and disorganized.
A child with an ambivalent attachment style will become extremely distressed when separated from an adult caregiver because the child can never be sure if the caregiver will return when there is need. Children at SSF with this attachment style have been raised in an environment when caregivers were inconsistent in meeting their needs from a very early age.
A child with an avoidant attachment style will show no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. New volunteers at SSF may notice children running out to hug them immediately after walking through the front gates, this is termed indiscriminate attachment and is a consequence of having a very weak or nonexistent attachment to a primary caregiver during their formative years.
A child with a disorganized attachment style will exhibit contradictory attachment strategies. Volunteers may find that some children may crave affection and proximity but at the same time seek distance, fluctuating between hot and cold on a moment to moment basis. Children at SSF with this style lack a coherent attachment strategy. The behaviors observed in these children are the consequence of chaotic, unpredictable and fear invoking parenting from their primary caregivers.
Children at SSF with an insecure attachment require an abundance of stable and predictable nurturing from adult caregivers in order to heal. Volunteers at SSF have the opportunity to assist in the healing process by committing some time everyday to simply having fun with the children. This way volunteers can help minimize the damaging effects of insecure attachment which includes poor self esteem, poor mental health, conduct problems and weak relationships with others throughout the lifespan. Relationships represent the core of the human experience so volunteers should appreciate just how valuable their contribution is.
Lifespan development is the term used to represent the progressive changes humans make from conception through to adulthood and eventually to the end of life. Most individuals will develop at a similar pace during childhood and into adolescence. However when children experience trauma their developmental age may fall behind their chronological age. This is called regression or arrested development and is used as a coping strategy for children who perceive the world as unsafe. Volunteers at SSF may recognize that some children appear to behave immature for their chronological age, for example a 13 year old girl may throw a tantrum characteristic of an 8 year old. Regression is the consequence of a family environment which does not meet the psychological needs of the growing child, unconsciously forcing that child to return to an earlier time in his/her lifespan which is perceived as safe. It is also common for children to behave overly mature for their age as a result of trauma. This has been commonly phrased “growing up too quickly” and it represents a risk factor despite sometimes appearing as a strength.
Volunteers at SSF may also notice that some children may exhibit behaviors which are highly sexualized. These behaviors may include rubbing themselves on volunteers, overly sensual massages, sexualized dancing or anything else perceived as inappropriate or too sexually advanced for the child’s age. Often children who have been sexually abused themselves will act out the abuse which has occurred to them without acknowledging the implications of their behavior. The abuse may have been direct, such as through rape, or indirect such as exposure to pornography or sexual activity between adults. Children may also exhibit sexualized behaviors because it has proved an effective strategy of appeasing abusive adults in the past. Volunteers can manage these behaviors by gently placing the child out of the sexualized interaction then validating them with attention once the interaction is more neutral. It is really important that volunteers try to help extinguish these behaviors because they leave children more vulnerable to further sexual abuse.
Volunteers are also to remain mindful that sexual abusive may also take place between the children at the SSF protective centre. Some children may sexually abuse more vulnerable and younger children in order to feel powerful. These children are unconsciously placing themselves in the shoes of the abuser to whom they have felt completely powerless in the past. Or it may simply be an unsophisticated strategy to command attention. Volunteers should alert an SSF staff member if they believe they have observed anything inappropriate such as sexual touching or grooming behaviors.
The children will exhibit many other complex emotional and behavioral symptoms which are beyond the scope of this summary to explain. Volunteers however are still able to assist more effectively in the healing process by following these guidelines.
Trauma informed Guidelines
- Attention is the most powerful reinforcement for children; try not to inadvertently reward violent or sexualized behaviors with attention. For some children even negative attention serves as a reinforcer because it represents a more positive outcome then no attention.
- Affectionate behaviors such as hugs and piggy backs are acceptable only if the child initiates this him/herself.
- Traumatized children are highly anxious and overly vigilant of potential threats in their environment. Volunteers can minimize this anxiety by being as predictable as possible. Try to be clear with SSF children when you are planning to visit the orphanage and when you plan to leave e.g. if the volunteer is planning to return for lunch at the centre this should be stated clearly so the children are empowered to predict their day.
- Volunteers should try not making any promises to SSF children that are unrealistic. For example promising the child that you will be around for months and months when you intend to only stay for a week will only set the child up for disappointment and play into their insecure attachment style.
- All children at SSF should be provided with one on one attention on a weekly basis to engage in an activity selected by the child e.g. walk to the market to be treated with a haircut. Volunteers should liaise with staff to organize a system where no children are left unacknowledged.
- Volunteers should try to make sure they are within eyesight of another adult while engaging with a child. This is to make sure the children remain safe and also to protect volunteers from any false allegations.
- Children at SSF can prove frustrating at times, however under no circumstances are volunteers to use corporal punishment on a child. More creative methods of discipline can be implemented such as deliberate ignoring.
- Only in the rare event where one child is seriously assaulting another child, can a volunteer intervene physically. The volunteer should attempt to wrap his/her arms around the aggressive child from behind in a hugging action with the aim of restricting the child from moving their arms. When the child is restrained the volunteer is to attempt to calm the child down and only release the child after he/she has been placated.
- Volunteers should recognize that they are in a position to offer a positive impact to the lives of extremely vulnerable children. As a volunteer you can never contribute too much energy and creativity so try to make your time as memorable as possible to the SSF children.
- Volunteers should be mindful of their own energy levels and morale. Volunteering for high needs children is energy consuming so please look after yourself first!
- Finally try to have fun! SSF children will appreciate your genuineness.
By: Martin Markus, Social Work Clinicianby