Why behavioural difficulties arise out of early life trauma and the importance of early intervention

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“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.”

(adapted from Frederick Douglass 1817–1895)

A recent study from researcher Dr Marcel Zimmet et al reports that children’s initial social interactions are primarily shaped by their interactions with their parents.

“The impact of difficult or impoverished parent–child relationships on brain development and long-term health is now well known. Recent neuroscience research reveals the adverse neurological impacts of developmental trauma and supports the biological basis of attachment theory. There is also an increasing body of evidence that childhood adversity is common and impacts physical and mental health throughout the life-span. Comprehensive paediatric assessment should include an understanding of attachment difficulties and developmental trauma. Viewing children and their families through a‘trauma-informed lens’can provide critical insights into their clinical presentation and care needs. All paediatricians should be providing and practicing trauma-informed care” writes Dr Zammit.

This research helps us understand why behavioural difficulties arise in the context of early life trauma and the importance of early intervention. There is an increasing body of evidence that childhood adversity is common and impacts physical and mental health throughout the life-span.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) or trauma have a big impact on developmental health. Dr Zammit’s research speaks of emotional abuse as the most common primary type of exposure (48%), followed by neglect (24%), physical abuse (16%) and sexual abuse (12%). Foetal Alchohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) culminates to bring several of these factors together with devastating results. Speaking at a recent conference, Dr Zimmet said that earlier and more accurate diagnosis of FASD can significantly improve children’s health outcomes. FASD diagnosis can be made at 18 months of age, yet at present it can take an average of  four years to get an accurate diagnosis, with ADHA, anxiety and other disorders being misdiagnosed in the meantime.

Intergenerational issues also come into play. At Royal Far West, increasing complexity in the families attending our services has seen trauma-informed practice endorsed as a goal in our Strategic Plan. RFW staff have written about a trauma informed approach to supporting rural and remote families in CRANAplus magazine (refer page 90) and how education and information from experts is helping our Trauma Informed Working Group translate new knowledge into practice.