The role of trust in managing through childhood trauma

Last weekend I watched one of my favourite movies: Sliding Doors. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, the premise is about how different life can be if you take one path over another. If you walk through a sliding door to the path outside, or if you choose to stay inside, in your current circumstance.

Just about every time I walk through a sliding door, I’m reminded of life’s ambiguity and the uncertainty of circumstance. And how different a life can be when someone is born into a nurturing, supportive family or not.

Sometimes we get to choose our circumstances. Often we don’t. Especially when we’re young and don’t have access to financial resources, family support or external help to be able to make a change.

A girl called Alanah

I want to illustrate this concept with the story of a girl called Alanah (Name changed to protect identity).

Alanah grew up in Claymore, outside Sydney. Claymore lays claim to dubious fame. It is the Australian suburb in which:

• the rate of teenage pregnancy is five times the national average
• the youngest population in a 1.5km radius in the whole country resides
• unemployment runs at close to 30%
• a third of the population haven’t had schooling beyond Year 9
• issues related to the use of drugs and alcohol and domestic violence are rife.

Alanah’s mother had mental health issues which led her to lock her children in a single room “for safety” and to shave Alanah’s head to stop her from being raped as a child.

When Alanah was four, she became the primary carer for her two-year old brother. She and her two siblings all have different fathers, none of whom have ever visited them. Her aunt stepped in and took Alanah and her siblings into her own home, thereby becoming a single mother of five children.

Still a child, Alanah found herself in the role of parent, with all that entails. She didn’t choose that role but nor was there a choice for her not to care for her younger siblings.

Until her aunt arrived, Alanah had no adult in her life who could care for her, teach her, support her or in whom she could trust. She lived with severe financial constraints and saw money that should have bought nappies, food and clothes for herself and her siblings go towards feeding the drug and alcohol addictions of the adults around her. As a fourteen-year old, she had never formed a healthy, stable relationship with an adult she could trust.

A sliding door opened for Alanah when she joined our SISTER2sister program. Matched with a stable, safe, positive female who was there just for her, Alanah experienced a secure, socially-inclusive environment centred on healing her trauma and enabling her to discover her own potential.

The trajectory of her life began to change. With time, trust and love, Alanah could see beyond the neglect and abuse, to what “could be.”

Alanah was born to someone who couldn’t care for her. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t fair. But it happened. As a young person, Alanah didn’t know any other ways of living. She didn’t trust any adults because all the adults in her life had let her down or taken advantage of her in some way.

The impact of childhood trauma

There is countless research showing the impact of trauma on a child’s ability to learn and develop. It is no surprise to realise that children who endure trauma, also called adverse childhood experiences, live with longer lasting consequences than children who don’t suffer trauma.

Children who suffer childhood trauma are more likely not to graduate high school or hold down a job. They are more likely to have early initiation to drug and alcohol use. They are more likely to live in a household reporting poverty.

They are much more likely to engage in risky behaviour, to form unhealthy relationships and to suffer anxiety or depression which, without intervention, can have devastating effects. Some ultimately face the grim trajectory of being incarcerated or to suicide. Many will repeat the dark cycle they’ve endured.

Childhood trauma invariably impacts self-esteem and self-worth, which triggers more issues. 63% of the girls in our program miss an average of three days of school a week because of anxiety or depression. Missing schools means they risk falling even further behind in their education, which is crucial to creating a different future.

Trauma often presents itself as behavioural problems in the class room. As a high school teacher, I saw so many misunderstood children punished for these behaviours, which they didn’t know how to change.

The children who fall through the cracks of school, family and life rapidly lose hope.

The long-term benefits of the SISTER2sister program

Fortunately, many of us are in a position to take steps to help make a change. We can reach out to these teenagers and help them step through a sliding door to a different life.

We can teach these children the importance of trust and that there are people in the world who will be there for them no matter what, who want nothing in return.

Our SISTER2sister program has been running for almost twenty years. In those years, we’ve changed the course of hundreds of lives. Those years have also given us valuable time to measure the impact of our program on the cohorts of teen girls who’ve come through our doors.

The latest Life Changing Experiences Foundation impact study shows that, through our SISTER2sister program:

%

of girls go on to finish high school.

%

of those girls will be the first generation of their family to do so.

%

of girls report positive change in their self-confidence and personal worth, their ability to self-regulate behaviours, resilience and attitudes to positive risk taking.

%

of girls report a positive change in the connection to their Big Sister mentor.

For more information about how we help teenage girls manage through childhood trauma, and how you can help us make a difference visit https://www.lifechangingexperiences.org/our-programs/sister2sister/