Today we were thrilled to present Dr. Bruce D. Perry’s ‘Transforming Childhood Trauma’ workshop in Melbourne. It was an inspiring, thought-provoking day that delivered a wealth of insights for the audience to apply to their practice. In this post, we share some of our highlights from the day.
In the beginning of the presentation, Dr. Perry explained the complexity of the human brain. One of the fundamental principles about the brain is that it develops sequentially, from the simplest parts to the most complex. The cortex, which controls higher reasoning, isn’t fully developed until people reach their early 30s. The brain also processes information sequentially – the lower, less complex parts have ‘first dibs’ on incoming information. This has significant implications for how we respond to stress.
“Part of what we know about the brain is that we don’t know that much about the brain”
Dr. Perry explained that the vast majority of behaviours that get children and adolescents into trouble are elicited behaviours that aren’t deliberately planned. Despite this, when people plan interventions for children, they often incorrectly assume that their behaviour is deliberate and assume control and intention that don’t exist.
Dr Perry described the importance of understanding childhood adversity, citing The ACE Study as evidence of the health, social, and economic risks that result from childhood trauma.
“Childhood adversity makes you socially, emotionally, physically vulnerable.”
Isolation of families is diabolical for children and Dr. Perry reminded us that humans are group animals. When we are part of a group, there is strength in the diversity of people’s different skills and the interconnectedness of relationships can build resilience Despite this we have made parenting an individual responsibility in our society. Dr Perry reminded us that Aboriginal and other First Nations cultures traditionally have done group parenting and group living very well though and serve as an example for Western societies.
“The interconnectedness of human beings is something that the Western world is struggling with”
Dr Perry emphasised that the brain is constantly changing. For example, the stress response systems, which can bey seriously affected by early adversity, are malleable throughout life – they can change for better or worse. Predictable, moderate, controlled stress is key to developing resilience, but prolonged, excessive stress can lead to sensitisation, where routine, minor sources of stress can be completely overwhelming.
The importance of rhythm in regulating stress was emphasised by Dr. Perry, citing the use of rhythm in traditional healing models in the form of drumming, chanting and dancing. Rhythm is regulating: these associations are wired into the brain in utero from hearing the rhythm of your mother’s heartbeat. Predictability and routine are calming and contribute to sense of safety and regulation, for both traumatised children and the professionals who work with them.
In the second half of the day, Dr. Perry spoke about how the concepts he described could be applied to clinical work. He introduced the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) as an approach to understanding a child’s developmental trajectory to the present. Annette Jackson, the Director of Berry Street Take Two, presented the case study of 9-year-old ‘Michael’, who had a history of trauma. At age five he was two years behind his peers developmentally, but with interventions from Take Two practitioners informed by NMT, he is now functioning at an expected level for his age.
Dr. Perry concluded by reminding the audience of the importance of their work helping traumatised children. He said that while workers in the sector may not get the respect that they deserve from society at large, he wanted us to know that we had the highest respect in his eyes.
“The work that you do is incredibly important and the impact you have is much greater than you likely realise.”