Improving Parent-Child Relationships for Families in the Shadow of Complex Trauma

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Children develop in an environment of caregiving relationships, which provide the foundation for ongoing development. In contrast to safe, secure and nurturing caregiving relationships, complex trauma is the experience of multiple or prolonged developmentally adverse traumatic events that occur within the child’s caregiving system, such as child maltreatment and exposure to domestic violence. Complex trauma is recognised as a source of toxic stress, which potentially leads to disruptions in the developing brain and other systems. This thesis argues that, of all of the profound impacts that complex trauma has on wellbeing, the impact on child socio-emotional and relational development is the most critical. These impacts have consequences not only for the short-term, but in the longer term, when children who have experienced complex trauma become parents themselves. Young parents and their children are at particular risk of poor outcomes and have been identified as a highly vulnerable group with specific needs related to their developmental stage and socioeconomic disadvantage. To achieve improved outcomes for young parents and their children, effective and accessible parenting support must be provided. However, few parenting interventions have been developed specifically for young parents with these experiences. Thus, the overarching goal of this study series was to develop and pilot a parenting intervention that meets the complex needs of young parents who have experienced early adversity, to intervene in intergenerational cycles of trauma through a series of five studies. In order to understand these impacts, and improve support for parents and children who have experienced maltreatment and associated trauma, this thesis uses a biobehavioural and attachment framework. First, a longitudinal study in a normative population provides insight into the influence of parenting on one aspect of child socio-emotional development, while the second study systematically reviews parenting interventions in alternative care to provide a broader picture of how to help biological parents meet the needs of their own children who have experienced complex trauma. The third study involves young parents in the development of our parenting intervention by eliciting their views and experiences through an online survey. The final two studies present the rationale, outline, implementation and preliminary evaluation of the intervention, Holding Hands Young Parents (HHYP), through a series of single-case experimental designs. Promising preliminary findings demonstrate that HHYP benefited young parents and their toddlers and also reinforce the need for ongoing treatment based-research for young parents with a history of early adversity.
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