Recovering from childhood trauma can be a long process, and it is important that caregivers are prepared for the long haul.

This was a key message from Mr Cayden Woo, Deputy Director of Sunbeam Place @ Children’s Society, speaking at a panel discussion during the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival (SMHFF) 2021.

The festival, which ran virtually from 22 to 30 May, featured seven films that aimed to spark conversations around topics such as dementia, suicide prevention, and mental health amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Each film was paired with a panel discussion.

It is imperative that caregivers take care of themselves, Mr Woo said, likening this to putting on one’s own oxygen mask before helping others in an airline emergency. Unless you take care of yourself, you will not have the capacity to care for trauma-impacted children and youth, he said, especially as recovery takes time, and takes place in stages.

“We must first establish safety, allowing children and youth to build trust and rapport with the people around them. Once safety is established, we work on helping them make sense of their past trauma,” he said.

The one-and-a-half-hour-long discussion entitled ‘The Shadow of Childhood Trauma’ took place via livestream on Saturday, 29 May.

The discussion was based on the French award-winning drama ‘Little Tickles’ (Les Chatouilles), which tells the story of Odette, a dancer with intimacy issues stemming from having been sexually abused by a friend of a parent when she was eight. It traces how she reconciles the events of her past and fights to recover.

It spotlights how a child in distress might act, and their “survival” responses, said Mr Woo, pointing to a similar response he had observed in a 10-year-old boy who had been routinely denied food. The child, who was slow academically, would squirrel away food in his school bag or under his bed. The young boy was also sensitive to loud noises and would hide in dark places – a response to violent episodes at home.

“To him, surviving was more important than his academics,” Mr Woo pointed out.

Another tell-tale sign is social disengagement. That could indicate abuse or neglect and is part of an innate “fight, flight or freeze” response, he said. A child’s visible behaviour is also often just the tip of the iceberg.

“All we see is the tip. If we delve deeper, the big non-visible part that causes the behaviour includes the child’s feelings and needs. It is important to remind ourselves not to react, but to dive deeper,” said Mr Woo.

The panellists also touched on other forms of trauma and how they are clinically diagnosed, as well as the social construction of “trauma” in today’s digital age. The psychological and physical manifestations of clinical trauma and how to help those struggling with this was also discussed.

The Singapore Mental Health Film Festival, now in its third year, promotes constructive discussions about mental health and how both victims and their loved ones can be helped. Through a series of films, panel discussions and workshops, the Festival hopes to provide a platform for adults to learn about mental health.