Dr Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D, American Child Psychiatrist and Ben Drew a.k.a Plan B, rapper and film maker, may not on the face of it have much in common.
In an interview with Evan Davis on Radio 4’s Today programme broadcast this morning, Plan B talked about the social exclusion of children and young people and the reaction to last summer’s riots. He runs therapeutic music sessions in a London school with the ‘chavs’ and ‘hoodies’, so often the focus of middle Britain’s rage. He described the enormous challenges facing the children he works with and said,
‘These kids are having to deal with stuff that most adults do not have to deal with.’
Then he explained why the march to stronger discipline doesn’t work for children who are used to being excluded and told they are useless.
Dr Bruce Perry’s research is in the impact upon the young, vulnerable brain of trauma and stress, whether that is due to growing up in fear within violent and neglectful environments or witnessing murder and abuse, in other words, the sorts of children Plan B is working with. In his book ‘The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog’ in which he describes his experiences of treating such children, he writes,
‘They’d suffered trauma – such as being raped or witnessing murder – that would have had most psychiatrists considering the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), had they been adults with psychiatric problems. And yet these children were being treated as though their histories of trauma were irrelevant, and they’d “coincidentally” developed symptoms, such as depression or attention problems …..’
We have thankfully reached the position now where adult survivors of trauma, such as soldiers who have fought in battle, are recognised as suffering with stress-induced symptoms. We do not however allow our children the same right. Where a soldier’s heightened startle reaction, their difficulties being in loud, busy places, is understood and sympathised with, our stressed and traumatised children are expected to get on with it and worse still have their symptoms written off as wilful and listed under ‘naughty’ or ‘disruptive’. In busy schools, they struggle to concentrate and ‘do what they’re told’ and are then punished, excluded and maybe even medicated.
Those of us who care for some of our nations traumatised children, whether foster carers, adopters, youth workers or social workers will be well aware of this inequality in the rights of our children. The Schools and Education section of the Adoption UK message board gives a tiny snapshot of how they are viewed. It is a catalogue of punishment, shame, lack of support, inaccurate diagnoses and heartbreak. Every day I read a list of unsettling search terms which bring readers to my blog. By
9am this morning one parent had entered ‘adopted son humiliated in front of class’,
the day before came ‘six year old in isolation at school’.
Neuroscience established, thirty years ago that young brains exposed to trauma and stress will produce behaviours in children such as aggression, defiance, anxiety and concentration difficulties. There is plenty of evidence also which points to the most effective methods, therapeutic methods of healing young minds. I don’t know why this weighty body of evidence has not trickled down more than it has into education, medicine, social policy and into general public awareness, as it has for adult mental health issues. It takes some effort to see the world through a child’s eyes, to step away from blame and shame and the moral high ground has always been a more comfortable and familiar place to stand. We will look back upon this period in history
with shame and wonder how we ever thought it right to discriminate against our
children with such lazy cruelty.
Dr Bruce Perry writes,
‘Ultimately, what determines how children survive trauma, physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is whether the people around them – particularly the adults they should be able to trust and rely upon – stand by them with love, support and encouragement’.
Plan B is doing just that, it’s about time the rest of us joined him.