Childhood problems - Child abuse

The Importance of Childhood Experiences

Content warning: References to childhood abuse

Late last year we saw two seemingly unrelated events; the apology by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to survivors of institutional child sex abuse and the decision to bring children in detention from Nauru to Australia for medical and mental health treatment. Regardless of where your political beliefs lie, there is no denying that as a society we are getting better at recognizing and acknowledging childhood trauma and understanding that what we experience as children has long reaching effects well into adulthood. As Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and researcher in PTSD and developmental trauma, says, “trauma is actually not the story of what happened a long time ago; trauma is residue that’s living inside of you now; trauma lives inside of you in horrible sensations, panic, reactions, uptightness, explosions, and impulses” (source:

Historically, we have tended to be ignorant of the effects of childhood trauma. In fact, we have only started talking openly about child abuse very recently. We now know, however, that what we experience from birth contributes to our beliefs and understanding of ourselves, others, and our relationships and how we deal with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and that the experience of childhood trauma distorts our capacity to see others as safe and reliable and ourselves as loveable and worthy of having our needs met. We can see this change in our understanding of the significance of childhood experiences reflected in parenting changes over the past few generations. You might have noticed that in some ways, the way you parent is quite different from the way you were parented, or the way your parents were parented (and in other ways all too similar, but that's a different article).

I see many people drawn to therapy because they want to understand the effects of their childhood experiences on their current thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, (whether they experienced trauma or not). There is something empowering about knowing where our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours come from and being able to feel compassion for our childhood selves while making a choice as adults to do something different.

So while the apology and the decision to bring children to Australia for treatment might seem unrelated, I think they represent a huge shift in our ability to see children’s experiences as important and to care for our children in ways that communicate this, and while we still have a way to go, we can be proud of ourselves for this.

If reading this has brought up any difficult reactions for you, please consider contacting Lifeline on 13 11 14.


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6 Tips For Helping Others Through Emotional Struggles

What can you do to support a friend or family member who is struggling emotionally?

When someone you are close to goes through a prolonged period of emotional pain, it can be hard to know how to respond. It's understandably difficult, but luckily, psychologists like us have figured out some of the best ways to help. The following are a few of the responses at your disposal.
  1. Staying positive can be useful for keeping spirits up. However, being overly positive or telling the person who is struggling that they need to be more positive in their thinking has the danger of being invalidating and unhelpful.
  2. Providing advice can be useful if used sparingly. Commonly, even good advice may not hit the mark because acting on such advice may be too difficult for the person who is struggling. Too much advice can be overwhelming and unhelpful.
  3. It is likely that one of the most helpful things that you can do for somebody who is struggling is to help them feel less alone in their suffering. See if you can attempt to find the words that may describe your empathic pain. That is, if you can describe what it would be like to see that same problem through that same person's eyes, it may not only help them feel understood, but it may also emotionally soothe them.
  4. If your loved one's suffering reduces their ability to function in day-to-day life and work, it can be useful to encourage them to see a health professional. There can be a stigma attached to mental distress, so try to normalize this option. A visit to a General Practitioner is a great starting point.
  5. Be patient and empathic towards any resistance to seeking help. Unless a person is a danger to themselves or others, you will have to respect their right to make their own choices about treatment.
  6. If you are worried about suicide or self-harm, make a call to your local area acute mental health team for advice on how best to proceed. They can be contacted on 1800 011 511
The following websites have excellent resources with further information. For adults worried about another adult: For parents of university students: For parents of school children: --- Patrick Sheehan is clinical psychologist who works with adults and adolescents. He runs training programs at The University of Sydney assisting students to respond effectively to friends in crisis or distress. Call RWA psychology for an appointment with Patrick or one of our other psychologists.


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