mother and daughter talkingSchools, social workers, police and NHS staff are inadvertently re-traumatising vulnerable children, because of fundamental misunderstandings about their behaviour, according to a new report.  

The report, Beyond Adversity, by children’s mental health charity YoungMinds, said that children who have been neglected, abused, bereaved or faced prejudice may communicate their feelings by being aggressive, self-destructive, withdrawn or highly sexualised. As a result, they are often treated as “the problem”. This means the cause of their trauma is never addressed and they don’t receive the mental health care they need.

Beyond Adversity also shows that 1 in 3 adult mental health problems stem from ‘adverse childhood experiences’ – including abuse, neglect, taking on adult responsibilities, prejudice and bereavement.  

While these experiences seem very different, they can all cause psychological trauma, which can have a lasting effect on a child’s brain development, affecting their ability to manage their emotions and perception of the world.

YoungMinds argues that:

Children who’ve had traumatic experiences should be fast-tracked for mental health support when they need it, even if they do not meet the usual thresholds for those services

Doctors, teachers, social workers, police officers and charities need to improve their understanding of how traumatic childhood experiences can affect behaviour

The government should urgently establish an expert group to improve understanding of adverse experiences in childhood and to ensure that treatment is consistent across the country.

Sarah Brennan, chief executive of YoungMinds, said: “The last thing vulnerable children need is to be re-traumatised by services that should be helping them. 

“If a young person who has been neglected reacts to their feelings by being aggressive at school, and is excluded, it reinforces the neglect and low self-worth that they originally experienced.

“If a teenager who’s being abused joins a gang to find a sense of belonging, but ends up in a young offenders’ institution, it can lead to a career of crime and violence when the issues could have been addressed early on. 

“Across the board, services need to focus less on ‘correcting’ behaviour, and more on identifying and addressing the underlying causes of childhood trauma. There are social and financial gains for the young person - but also the whole of society by doing this. Not doing anything makes no sense at all.”