Look up. Make eye contact. Speak so people can hear you. Don’t yell so others turn away. Never raise your fist. It’s a complex set of social and relationship rules that children miss learning if they’re just trying to survive in a home where family violence is prevalent and the main lesson they’re absorbing is, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.
Setting new, positive pathways for vulnerable children exposed to family violence or displaying challenging behaviours has been Senior Social Worker Tara Pavlidis’ mission since the Specialist Group Work Program (SGWP) was established in Brimbank in 2011. As part of the Communities for Children project, supported by The Smith Family and delivered in conjunction with schools and welfare agencies, this therapeutic group work has successfully expanded the reach of The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) Mental Health service.
“Not all problem behaviours arise from familial trauma but it’s often an underlying cause,” said Tara. “It’s an immediate threat to a child’s developing brain and therefore their mental wellbeing and there are many ways this plays out.
“It can harm the child’s attachment to their primary caregiver. It compromises their ability to initiate and maintain peer relationships because their behaviour is often based on what’s modelled at home. Violence is normalised. There are often speech and language difficulties. Many of these children have low self-esteem and perform poorly at school as their cognitive development is impaired, while others are high-achieving kids who just can’t relax.”
Many of these children have also missed out on the critical learning that comes from play. In a household where play might be regarded as too loud, taking up space and making a mess without permission, toys might also be destroyed or simply can’t be afforded.
It’s no wonder that playing games and having fun underpin the serious lessons in the therapeutic groups run by Tara for primary school aged children. How about joining the Secret Agents Society, a program for children experiencing social and emotional difficulties with a focus on peer relationships? There’s also Stop, Look, Listen, a social skills group, and Feeling is Thinking for children struggling with strong emotions, especially anger and anxiety.
The children develop a range of practical coping skills in the face of adversity and also have the chance to share their stories in a safe space. Being heard can help break the stigma associated with mental health struggles or living with family violence.
“Rock and Water has a martial arts influence focusing on social and emotional wellbeing related to core strength and discipline over self, mind and body,” continued Tara. “Drumbeat focuses on positive and negative relationships and talks about who is safe and trustworthy in their lives. Children might talk about being scared at home and their awareness of drugs and alcohol and other concerning issues in their community.
“At the end of Drumbeat, each child invites two people to a drumming performance and we see some wonderful transformations. Very anxious children with their eyes glued to the floor in week one now display some confidence and pride.”
Many of these therapeutic groups have a separate parent or carer component and they also receive post-group feedback on their child’s involvement. Parents Accepting Responsibility Kids are Safe, however, is a child-led group with parents and children joining for one session. The aim is for children to have their experiences validated while parents get a sense of the complexity of what their child is dealing with.
This direct support to children and families also builds the skills of the education and welfare agencies co-facilitating, in mental health support and trauma-related prevention and intervention. The majority of children are referred to the SGWP by schools that also identify which therapeutic group would best suit their students.
In turn, the RCH benefits from the connections schools and welfare agencies have to families who are typically not help-seekers. In many cases, Tara might be the first helping professional they have spoken to about trauma.
Feedback from families and community partners has consistently praised the practical effectiveness of the program. Not only have relationships within families, with teachers, and peers dramatically improved, but so have their connections to schools, welfare agencies and their local community. It’s a cost-effective, child-centred model that reduces the need for more interventionist mental health care services down the track.
Meet the Donor
The Smith Family is a national charity helping young Australians in need and is also the facilitating partner for Communities for Children, an Australian Department of Social Services program. They have been a community partner with the RCH for four years, working with the SGWP to support Brimbank children as active learners.