How a child’s body tells the story

In this Science to Practice video, child psychotherapist Tessa Baradon uses the Childhood Trauma and the Brain animation to explain how children’s bodies can carry their experiences of childhood trauma. If we can learn to see children in new ways, then it is easier to empathise with them when we are faced with behaviour we may find challenging.

My name is Tessa Baradon and I’ve been working with families, parents, and babies for many years in different cultures and different countries because patterns of what we believe should happen between a parent and the baby differ between cultures and religions. So, it’s best if we understand where the family is coming from before we start trying to help them.

So, what we want to focus on today really and talking to you about the animation is about the baby’s experience when they have parents who can’t really meet their ordinary developmental needs. There’s a kind of universal basis of needs of babies all over the world, which is to be kept safe, to be cherished, to be respected as an independent being – even from a very young age – to have a sense of community, and belonging, things like that. Parents may, for different reasons, not meet those needs. The aspects that the animation talked about in particular are abuse and neglect.

What is a baby’s experience? I think if we understand that — if we can imagine — what it’s like to be young, very young, very dependent, helpless, vulnerable, but full of eagerness for life. Because there’s a passion to live in infants and to develop and to devour the world. If we can understand, we can empathise more easily with them and that makes it easier when we are faced with provocative behaviour. Or, when the baby’s or child’s or adolescent’s needs impinge on us in some way and irritate us or disturb us. We can take that step back and think about why are they behaving in this way? Can I do something helpful to change their behaviour?

A baby’s life is made up of interactions with their parents or the people who are caring for them. These interactions need to hold elements of predictability in response to their cues. So, I’m a baby I feel hurt; I’m hungry; Something fell on my leg; I’m cold; I’m frightened – I cry. That’s my way of telling the person who looks after me that I’m in trouble and I need them to respond. A pattern builds where say mum turns with a concerned face and tries to understand what’s bothering the baby, what’s causing its suffering and to respond to that. Then the baby thinks over time in its body kind of says, oh when I don’t feel good, I cry mummy understands that I need her help and she makes me feel better. I’m actually quite good at telling mummy how I feel and mummy is quite good at making me feel safe in this world. When I suffer it can go away afterwards with her help.


But what happens if mother doesn’t respond in that way? Say she’s in a different mood. She just had a row with her partner or she just heard that someone very important to her has spoken badly about her and she’s upset. So, the baby’s cry doesn’t make her feel concerned. It makes her feel “shut up I’m not in the mood for this now. Don’t make demands on me. I’ve got my own needs”. So, it’s not mummy’s concerned face the baby meets – it’s a different expression: it’s angry. It’s I wish you would go away; I don’t want you here. That’s a different mummy face that is new and frightening and is very likely to make me, as little baby dependent on mummy, feel very confused and very frightened and very uncertain what to do. What do I do? The cry that should be effective isn’t effective and it brings on a different response: either a blanking out of me which might be neglect or an angry or hostile, resentful response in mother. These are all experienced inside me – not in my mind. I can’t think yet. I don’t have words for hurt, frightened, sad, lost — I just feel them. My body gets hot or my body gets cold. My tummy closes up or my heart beats very rapidly. I feel flushed. These are the memories in the body that create the experience of trauma that is carried on further.

If we think about the child who goes to school – that little girl in glasses – she doesn’t know that she’s going to be received by the other children. She goes with trepidation. They’re not going to like me. The teachers are going to get cross with me. Will they ignore me? These thoughts – they might have words for them because she’s older or they might not if there’s been nobody to give names to feelings, but they’ll certainly be in her body. Her tummy will be very tight. All of us know that feeling before traveling on a plane, for example, or writing an exam or meeting somebody you’ve never met before.

They might feel sick. They might feel hot. They might feel cold. It’s all body communications about what this new situation, which they anticipate might not be a good one, creates in the body.

Furthermore if you haven’t had an experience of an adult face responding in a genuine way to your feelings or responding in frightening ways, as said in the animation, you are likely to become hypervigilant because you’re looking around to detect the threat before it hits you, so you can protect yourself before it crashes into you. This little girl coming to school will be hypervigilant, perhaps, to the expressions of the children around and she might not read them correctly. Because the children will meet her with all sorts of feelings: curiosity, surprise – somebody new coming in. Maybe someone will think, ‘oh I don’t want her to get me between me and my best friends’. So, a little bit of anxiety in the other child. But, this little girl is coming and looking at all these expressions in the other children through more or less one prism and that is: this is not going to be friendly to me. This is a threat to me. Again, that’s in the body we often don’t even notice how we move backwards when we anticipate through it.  We certainly don’t know how our faces may close down. How our eyes might slide away and that the other person will be reading these cues.


Which in a way takes us to the swimming pool where the boy misreads his companion’s friendly nudge as an aggressive act. Do you remember his face – the aggrieved young adolescent his eyebrows are tight his musculature in his face is tight, his mouth as grim, his body is tense, his reaction of anger and of tension and readiness to fight is in all, for all the fabric of his body. His muscle, his spine, his hands. This young boy who’s showing this really aggressive behaviour or externality can be read at surface level and you can take this as what an unpleasant child I’ve got to look after now as a sports teacher with the others in there. And I have to look out for trouble. He’s so sullen and resentful. Really hard to like him. Then perhaps somewhat of a punitive response is aroused in the sports teacher or any adult having to cope with a difficult social situation. But if you think what that musculature in the face is hiding — those feelings we saw when the boy looked into the mirror: I’m rubbish, I’m nothing, I’m worthless. That’s what gets built into his body. Then it’s much easier to empathise with him and to take that step back of understanding the experience of the child.

Remember the dejected baby and how his body slumped? That was easier to read. Perhaps not to his mother who was engrossed in an animated conversation and the baby was in her way. In a caring adult, like the teacher, it is more likely if you anticipate that the surface signals might hide something else that you’ll be able to step back and think, what is this child really telling me with his body? Perhaps behind that sullen exterior is that dejected baby. That very same slumped body of the baby. So, in the sense, the body tells the story that is underneath surface communication.

Learn more

You can find the Childhood Trauma and the Brain animation and additional resources to support your learning on our here. This includes a downloadable guidebook, explainer videos, and articles on the research. The animation is also available with Welsh subtitles.

This video was generously funded by the Economic Social Research Council.

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