Speaking up and being heard: how do we listen and respond to children’s experiences, needs and hopes?

This blog entry was authored by Nicola Palfrey
Clinical Psychologist, Researcher, and Director of
the Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Grief & Loss Network
at the Australian National University.

Children who have experienced trauma or adversity are often portrayed and described as passive victims. Whilst undoubtedly, they are often victims of circumstances, and even at times of significant abuse, this is not their whole story, nor necessarily their defining characteristics. The complexity of children’s experiences, and the sophistication of the strategies they have developed to manage in the face of adversity are often unexplored and misunderstood. 

Children’s voices are often unheard, or drowned out by the adults around them, even when it is the child’s own experiences, needs and feelings that are the topics being discussed. There is a growing body of research that illustrates that adults, including parents and carers are not reliable and accurate in their accounts of their children’s experiences, including children’s interpretation of events, and even of the symptoms children may be experiencing. 


Children often know the stories adults want to hear, and adapt their narratives to suit this. Children know adults want them to be OK, to be moving forward not looking back, and so they reassure adults they are OK to avoid upsetting them. Children also often do not mention experiencing certain symptoms such as nightmares or flashbacks, leaving them alone to manage these awful experiences.

 When we speak with children directly about their lives, they reveal the level of agency and resilience they developed in order to cope with unsafe home lives. They have complex and multilayered strategies for how to manage and reduce harm. They know how to best protect their siblings from direct harm or from overhearing distressing scenarios.

They have strategies for de-escalating parents and diverting attention. Above and beyond this, they have had to learn how to manage terrifying situations on their own, how to self-soothe in silence, and how to get up and face the world each day as if everything is OK. 

A particularly challenging time for families is the time after a family escapes the perpetrator of abuse. The dominating presence is gone and a sense of ‘safety’ is established or restored. For many families what they anticipated as a peaceful time, becomes incredibly fraught as roles are redefined and a ‘new normal’ tries to be established. In this situation some children will attempt to step up into an adult role. This behaviour is often characterised as bossy, aggressive and inappropriate.

Others will withdraw, internalise, comply, and they are wrongly seen as unaffected. Some children will vacillate between the two. Non-offending parents can have their attempts to assert their authority challenged if children do not yet have confidence that she can take charge. They may have heard their whole lives that their mother is incompetent and weak and groomed to discount her. Yet now she is in charge? Children who have been caring for siblings and adults are now told to revert to being a ‘child’, to go and play, ‘you don’t have to do that anymore’. 

This invalidates their experiences, it characterises their adaptive skills as deficits to be corrected. It can leave children in a space of not knowing what to do, feeling isolated from their same aged peers. What practices can we employ to support adults to see children’s behaviours and adaptations as strengths, skills to be valued and channelled into positive contributions to their life. How can we ensure we hear directly from children so we know how they are feeling, what support they need, and with what they are struggling? This presentation will explore ways to support children and families to recover and form new ways of being together in safety.


For information and resources on how to support children and families please visit www.emergingminds.com.au where you can access free resources including our e-learning programs including Trauma and the Child and Building Block for Children’s Social and Emotional Wellbeing.


Nicola Palfrey is a Clinical Psychologist and researcher who works clinically with children and families who have experienced significant adversity and trauma. She is Director of the Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Grief & Loss Network at the ANU and a Project Lead for Emerging Minds: The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, an initiative to support workforces identify, assess and support children under 12 years who are at risk of experiencing mental illness.