Emotional trauma – the unseen barrier to self fulfilment


Alan White

I have spoken in a previous blog about the negative effects the stress and pressure to perform in exams has on our young people. This week I want to look at the effect that trauma can have on how students engage with education.

I would like to begin by saying that I am not an expert on the area of trauma. Like many others I have experienced trauma in my life, and in many different areas of my life. We all understand what physical trauma is. It can range from a paper cut to a deep wound requiring stitches or it can be a bruised arm or a broken bone in your arm. No matter how big or small the physical wound, they are nevertheless painful and relative to the sufferer and can leave a visible scar afterwards.

The same can be said for emotional trauma. However this is a little trickier as there are not any physical symptoms. We cannot see the wound and sometimes we may not even be aware that the wound exists. However what I see very often in the behaviour of young people, who self-sabotage through negative or disruptive behaviours, are actually the scars caused by emotional trauma.

I have seen the effects of emotional trauma in young people, many times over the years. It’s difficult to pinpoint that there is emotional trauma present, however more often than not difficult behaviours are what we see. We often label these young people as the bold or difficult boy or girl in the class. These young people are easy to identify as they will regularly disrupt classes, get sent to the office and spend a lot of their time in school getting into trouble.

However there are many more young people struggling with the scars of emotional trauma that often fall through the cracks. They are the young people who keep their head down in class, counting down the minutes of each lesson, doing the bare minimum and wishing their days away. As a result many students are unable to ever fully engage with education. This is because all of their time in school is spent trying to just get through the day.

Emotional trauma can be caused at any time, by any number of factors. Here I will focus on what I believe can cause trauma in young people. Young children and adolescents are extremely sensitive to the words and actions of the adults in their lives. These are mainly parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and of course teachers. I am often amazed at the wonder and enthusiasm shown by young primary school children who hang on every word their teacher says. I then wonder how this changes so much through secondary education for some students. What happens to these young curious minds?

Children need to be regularly encouraged and allowed to explore their abilities, whatever they may be. Any negative message young students receive from any adult in their lives, be it either verbally or through their actions, can have terrible effects on the young person’s self-esteem and cause emotional trauma associated with education, that once inflicted can be difficult to heal.

Young people know very well if they are struggling with maths or any other subject and don’t need an adult in their life to tell them. Very often parents or teachers can become frustrated themselves and in the moment show that frustration through words or actions to that student. This can have lasting negative consequences which cause the students to disengage with the subject. If this happens regularly over time, to protect themselves, and not invite more failure and frustration into their lives, they often give up trying. Would you blame them?

So, this week’s message is that we need to constantly build up our young people’s confidence, allow them to try things on their own and sometimes fail. If this happens they will know it, so rather than remind them of this, encourage them to try again. Remind them that they are capable and can achieve their goals. We all need this from time to time, our children are no different!

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