Kid's Korner

Child-Focused Clinicians Work with Trauma Across the Lifespan

When left untreated, traumatized children may become traumatized adults, who become traumatized parents caring for traumatized children. Traumatized children are the foundation (but not the cause!) of intergenerational trauma. So, where do we break this cycle? 


Working with traumatized children often means working with whoever walks the child through the door: parents, grandparents, other kin, foster and adoptive families, other caregivers. While it is often necessary to work directly with the child, this is generally not sufficient when the child lives within a family system. We do the child a disservice when we forget that children need their caregivers far more than they need us clinicians. 

The challenge is that it is not uncommon for children who present with attachment disruptions and developmental gaps to have parents or caregivers who also have attachment wounds and missing skill sets. Caregivers can’t give what they don’t have, and they can’t teach what they don’t know. This is not their fault, and children rarely heal within a family system that continues to perpetuate the same unhelpful interactions. Someone has to start doing something different. On the one hand, changing longstanding patterns may be harder for the caregivers whose behaviors are overlearned across years and decades. Children’s brains are more adaptable. On the other hand, relative to the child’s neurodevelopmental stage, the caregivers are typically the ones with the more developed adult brains and executive functioning skills, which gives them more cognitive resources to unlearn that which is no longer serving them and to learn something new. 

From this angle, treating children with complex trauma often means working with trauma across the lifespan. It is not helpful to blame parents and caregivers (they were once children too!), but we can empower them to collaborate towards their child’s wellness. The younger the child, the more responsibility the caregiver has to participate in the child’s healing process. Much of our work with parents and caregivers is to model and teach the attunement and regulation that their children need from them. We become a secure base for caregivers, who then have a healthy template from which to provide a secure base for their children. 

As I came out of one fruitful, but particularly intense, session with a child’s caregivers, a colleague joked, “there’s no such thing as a child psychologist, eh?” Indeed, when it comes to work with traumatized children, child-focused clinicians must also equip caregivers to provide an environment that guides the child toward healing.

Kid’s Korner runs quarterly and addresses the unique needs of child and adolescent trauma survivors. Though this column focuses on young people, readers may discover that these articles are relevant in working with persons across the lifespan. This column has been relatively silent over the past few years, and we are looking for writers to contribute to its revival. If you have an idea for an article, would like to write an article, or have any questions about Kid’s Korner please feel free to reach out to Alexis Arbuthnott via email at