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Blog: How listening with empathy can help to heal children's brains

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Thursday, 24 November, 2016

Showing empathy creates calm

I heard Dr Margot Sunderland speak recently about helping children in their emotions by showing and demonstrating empathy. She is a powerful advocate for giving empathy to children and shows how this can heal and change children who have experienced trauma and have attachment difficulties. Dr Margot Sunderland is a child psychotherapist and Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health in London. She has published over 20 books in the area of child mental health. In this blog I hope to share some of what she spoke about and hope that it empowers you to be an empathic listener in your responses to children. 

Empathic listening has a healing impact on the brain and mind

It leads to good vagal tone, calming down the heart rate and supporting emotional regualtion. When a child is emotionally regulated, the medulla in the brain is calmed and a trauma response is lessened. 

When I looked into vagal tone (this was something I had not heard about before) I learnt that it is about an internal process in the body involving the vagus nerve which originates from the medulla part of the brain that is a key component of the nervous system operating our heart, lungs and digestion. An increase in vagal tone slows the heart down. So this means that empathy from an adult to a child creates good vagal tone and thus helps the child to calm down and emotionally regalate. 

This week I saw a little girl who was shouting, "Go away, go away!" to an adult. She was loud, vocal and seemed angry. The adult was trying to talk to her and encourage her to come into a room but the child stayed outside. From inside the room a voice said, "Just ignore her, she gets like that." It was all I could do not to say to the little girl, "Are you feeling cross?" I wanted so much to give her empathy, suggest how she might be feeling and try to reach her in her place of high emotion. I could sense her upset but as an unknown bystander, I could not help. As a practitioner supporting this child I wonder if showing empathy to her would have helped her to become calm. 

Having heard this message from Dr Margot Sunderland, I wonder how many children we can help and affect by simply reacting and responding to them with this empathy?

Trauma in early childhood can cause attachment disorders

Dr Margot Sunderland talked about forms of attachment that children might demonstrate depending on their past experiences and trauma that they might have had. Trauma in a baby or young child can affect the brain development and emotions. She said that a child that has experienced traumatic loss could exhibit signs similar to ADHD or conduct disorder and that this loss could be due to grief, separation, adoption, fostering or abuse. She said that children who experience divorce or separation can move children into insecure attachment.

All behaviour is understandable in the context of what happened to that child

Often a child behaves out of a flight, fight or freeze response, which is triggered from a part of the brain that is hard to over-ride, particularly in young children and children who find it hard to emotionally regulate. Young children of course also find it hard to self regulate because they are learning about feelings and emotions. It is easy to see how early experiences, empathy, trauma and loss all can have such significant impact on how the brain learns to respond in emotion.

The amygdala part of the brain can be triggered to react by an incident that a child experiences which then takes the child back into their traumatic experience. For example, this might happen if a child is shouted at, or if someone is taken away from them. This is a core feeling when the child responds by fight or flight and they might demonstrate panic or anger or aggression.

In this heightened emotion, a child who is responded to with empathy, listening and responding by validating the child's emotions will feel contained and will be helped to calm down. Children might often be expected to be in control of their emotional regulation but when something triggers that amygdala part of the brain from a traumatic past experience, there is no reason or rationalisation. There is no ability to regulate in that moment. There is just a huge surge of emotion which has to be expressed. 

Being attachment aware 

I was very encouraged to hear that repair and healing can happen if adults provide empathic responses, play and attunement. I felt that we can help to make a difference. Dr Margot Sunderland recommends that schools (and I would add all settings) must help to build up the child's self. Being attachment and trauma aware as practitioners can help in this process.

If we can support children to regulate then they can calm down and strong emotions will lessen or be controlled. Otherwise it is possible that in later life, the child will turn to other sources to help calm down, like drugs and alcohol. We can also help to support children to learn about alternative responses for stress, giving them other options to stimulate endorphins to help them feel good. For example, running, being outside in a green space and music can all induce oxytocin which is a feel good factor and an excellent alternative to a stress response. 

A recent joint paper by Adoption UK and NAHT Understanding attachment difficulties is being sent to all schools following recent NICE guidance (October 16) on attachment difficulties. Let us hope that becoming more attachment aware, attuning to children and giving them empathic responses can help in their journey towards help and healing. 

Further reading and resources

  • Dr Margot Sunderland's website has further information about her background and work
  • Vagus nerve stimulation Dr Arielle Schwartz
  • Stoke virtual school's attachment aware schools information or you could look up your local authority's virtual school for more information. 
  • Understanding Why by the National Children's Bureau about understanding attachment and how this can affect education

For more information and additional resources check out the pedagogy and attachment section in our members' area on our website.

Cathy Gunning loves working to enhance and support children's wellbeing and early play in quality enriching learning environments. She works part time for Early Education as well as being a part time nursery teacher and stay-at-home mum. She has previously been a primary teacher, early years coordinator and day nursery manager. Her pedagogy was nurtured and inspired during her time as an early years advisory teacher and whilst studying for a masters degree in early years. Most recently she was a nursery school headteacher where she developed and led an integrated centre for over 10 years. As a reflective practitioner and leader, she enjoys continually learning about effective pedagogy in early education. 

You can follow Cathy on twitter