Secondary trauma in schools

Secondary trauma in schools

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As a parent of three adopted children secondary trauma is something I think about often – the impact of living with children who’ve experienced early trauma. However I’m also beginning to see more of this in education. I’m sure it’s always been the case but maybe we never identified it as such. If you are a teaching assistant, for example, who works closely with a child who struggles with education and relationships day in and day out – then the impact of that on you can be great.

Charles Figley (1995) defines secondary traumatic stress as “the natural consequent behaviors resulting from knowledge about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other. It is the stress resulting from wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.”

The constant battles and demands that come from trying to help those who’ve experienced trauma can be very wearing. To the extreme it can mean a breakdown or depression, on a smaller scale physical effects might be lack of sleep, poor diet and low energy.

So if you’re working closely with a child like this and you can answer yes to some of these questions below, then you may be experiencing secondary trauma.

  1. Are there days when you wonder why you come into work?
  2. Have you felt exhausted by the relentlessness of trying to understand the children in your care?
  3. Has there been a strain on any of your meaningful relationships, due to the stress of working with these children?
  4. Do you find it difficult to relax as you are always waiting for the next crisis to happen?
  5. Do you wish you could explain to people around you how demanding this child can be?
  6. Do you experience the physical signs of stress on a continual basis? i.e. lack of sleep, low mood, change in diet, headaches, aches and pains, tightening of muscles.

If you feel that you may be experiencing secondary trauma then you need to act now. The following actions will help you so that you can continue to help these children.

Talk to someone about how you are feeling. Ideally this should be someone in your school who can empathise and take action if needed. If there is no-one like this in your environment then find someone outside – a GP, counsellor or someone experienced in the area of secondary trauma. Once you can be honest about how you feel then help can be found. I appreciate that sometimes this is harder then it sounds due to the pressure to succeed and to be able to be seen to cope, but if you carry on regardless the likelihood is the stress will develop into something more difficult for you and the school to manage.

Take some time out from that child. This again I know can be difficult if you have built a good relationship with them or you are the only one available. However once you can recognise the impact it is having on you and can step back for a while you can begin to see things differently. Know that it is not personal – a child who has experienced trauma very often lashes out at those closest to them. They push the boundaries to see if you will stick around. This is what makes us want to not give up on them but taking a break is not giving up – it’s just taking a break!

Make sure you are as equipped as possible to support them. Understanding the behaviour of traumatised children can be very difficult. Getting training and reading up on the impact of trauma can be empowering. Once you can really know what the behaviour is about, what the underlying emotions and feelings might be, then the strategies become easier to find. When we become overwhelmed with the complex needs of a child it has an impact on our feelings and can contribute to secondary trauma. Being as equipped as you possibly can be will aid you against overwhelm.

Look after yourself above all else. Finally as we’re told in the safety instructions on planes – you can not look after someone else if you are struggling yourself – you have to put your mask on first before you can help a child. This is true also in our jobs. Once you have had a break from a particular child you need to build in strategies to keep your stress levels under control. These may be very varied and dependent on what relaxes you – for some it may be taking a walk at lunch time or listening to some music. For others it may be exercise, eating well and getting enough sleep (we all need that). Whatever you need to put in place to keep yourself healthily in all aspects you must make time to do it.

Remember that for these children relationships are vitally important. The more they start to trust people the more they will push the boundaries. Getting help and making sure you follow the actions above will mean that you will feel better in your role and also the child will have the relationship they so desperately need.

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