If I were to give you a certain estimate of the number of kids and teens I currently see for trauma, I would say about 7 out of 10 cases every 30-90 days of the year. It’s scary to look at the large numbers of people within our society who have struggled with (or are currently dealing with) some form of trauma. It’s even scarier to observe the after-effects of trauma and the evil that triggers the symptoms that are expressed as complex, confusing, and even deceptive. I use the term deceptive to refer to trauma symptoms that are complicated and hard to treat with medication and even therapy. Some symptoms are so rooted in the trauma history that it takes months, if not years, to properly treat and understand. After 8-10 years of working with trauma cases, I found myself beginning to conceptualize the traumatic histories of all of my cases as having a “rooted evil.” There is no other explanation for why an innocent child has to experience the turmoil often brought on by a traumatic past. This article will briefly explore the complexities of trauma (the “rooted evil”) and describe the debilitating nature of re-enactments, triangulation, emotional dysregulation, and suicidal thoughts.
There is nothing easy about trauma. It affects the entire family unit including the victim’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. It never goes away. The damage is done. The only hope is that someone will understand the child, the adolescent, or the adult and find ways to love them, help them, and facilitate healing. Facilitating healing could be as simple as showing unconditional love, being mindful of the traumatic past and its effects, and pardoning every offense that is likely to occur at the hands of the traumatized individual. A colleague once said, “there is a lot of turning the other cheek with individuals who have experienced trauma.” I couldn’t agree more.
What’s most difficult for families is that multiple therapy sessions and treatment approaches including medications are often tried and ultimately seems to fail. Trauma is convoluted and many professionals must obtain months to years of training in order to deal with it. To be honest, most of my training came from “on the job experience.” No training, no seminar, no graduate school class, no licensing board, no certification class could ever prepare me for the type of trauma and the symptoms of trauma I observe in my career. It’s simply frightening.
Most parents and families recognize that trauma is bad, but sadly fail to recognize just how bad. Families and parents begin to blame themselves for the difficult time their loved one is having. Lack of progress on the part of the victim is not necessarily the fault of the parent or family member, but it is the convoluted nature of the trauma that keeps us all confused, blinded, and flabbergasted. When I have conversations with parents and families about their traumatized loved one, they often give me the impression that they fully understand what their loved one is experiencing until their loved one does something unthinkable. Some of my trauma cases have included children who have done such things as: eat their own feces or drink their own urine, sleep with a pocket knife to protect themselves from the ghosts that haunt them, sleep during the day and stay wide awake during the night to “protect the entire family from gangsters,” steal food from their own kitchen for fear of never having enough, or wake up in the middle of the night screaming bloody murder after having a nightmare that their abuser has returned. All of these cases have come through my doors and many families stagger at the reality that they have a loved one struggling this much. This is the rooted evil of trauma. It’s hard to understand, hard to acknowledge, hard to work (or live) with, and hard to treat. It’s, even more, difficult for the natural mind to comprehend that such trauma exists in our society.
After the trauma has been experienced, the life of the victim takes on a totally different nature. It’s almost as if the individual must learn to walk again. Each step is likely to be a baby step and great support will be needed. Sadly, the victim often struggles with making sense out of relationships and daily life. They may feel immature, left behind, or inadequate. Others sometimes develop a cold indifference to life and those in it, often carrying an anti-social, “I don’t care” attitude. Either way, these individuals are likely to create challenges for other people around them. A great deal of psycho-education is needed in therapy sessions for families to understand these polar opposite moods and attitudes.
I have observed that there are 6 ways in which individuals with traumatic histories negatively affect those around them. Some of these ways include:
- Trauma Re-enactments: The best way to describe a re-enactment of trauma is in the way that the Sanctuary Model website describes it:
“the lingering behavioral enactment and automatic repetition of the past….The traumatized person is cut off from language, deprived of the power of words, trapped in speechless terror. Trauma demands repetition – what Pierre Janet, Freud and so many others observed when they noticed the compulsion to repeat [traumatizing events] in trauma survivors.”
In many mental health agencies, trauma re-enactments often occur in individual, family, and group therapy.
- Triangulation: You can also see re-enactments playing out as triangulation, a topic I discussed in a past article. Triangulation is basically the act of bringing into a conflict (or complicated situation) two or more people who eventually begin to perpetuate confusion and conflict. For example, consider a woman going through a divorce. Most women often share details with close friends or even colleagues. While speaking with colleagues or friends, you begin to acquire a “following” of supporters who develop negative feelings toward the husband. When the husband runs into his wife’s colleagues or friends, they roll their eyes and talk rudely to him. This is a triangle.
- Emotional Dysregulation: Emotional dysregulation is an inability to control one’s own emotions. For many individuals who have experienced childhood trauma, the ability to self-regulate is a challenge and often requires co-regulation (another individual helping the victim to control their own emotions) or intensive therapy focused on distress tolerance. Many youngsters who struggle to regulate their emotions must either be hospitalized against their will (i.e., a 302 to a hospital) or restrained by professional mental health workers. Adults who have trouble controlling their emotions are often arrested by the police for rash and impulsive behaviors on the road, risky and irresponsible behaviors such as sexual indiscretion or prostitution and having multiple partners, and anger management issues. Some men and women also re-enact domestic violence situations from their past in their current relationships.
- Cognitive/Emotional Delays: Believe it or not, individuals who have experienced extreme trauma in their history often struggle with emotional and cognitive delays. For young children, Head Start programs are very helpful in getting these youngsters healthy and prepared for education and social interactions. Many of my clients struggle with attention, impulsivity, immature behaviors, crying spells, tantrums, or emotional outbursts that are disproportionate to the actual situation at hand. Some individuals with traumatic histories also struggle with maintaining age-appropriate relationships and interests. For example, while working in a mental health hospital some years ago, I came across a 50-year-old woman who had experienced multiple deaths in one year and by the next year lost her 12-year-old granddaughter. She struggled to grasp all of her losses and could not cope appropriately which led to her carrying a plastic babydoll around and dressing it up in her granddaughter’s clothing. Imagine seeing a 50-year-old woman in a grocery store with a plastic babydoll in the shopping cart? What would you think? Would you have compassion on her? Would you think trauma?
- Dissociation: The best way to remember and conceptualize dissociation is to think of it as a splitting of the self or separation from reality. It is a much more severe form of daydreaming but often includes a person splitting off into another level of consciousness. Some kids actually develop a “glazed over” look on their faces, while some adults simply cannot remember details that may have occurred while they were dissociating. Some individuals describe this as “blacking out.”
- Suicidal thinking/gestures/attempts: One of the “symptoms” that truly perplexes families and parents are those of a suicidal nature. A young child, teen, or adult who expresses the desire to take their own life, even if things don’t seem that bad, perplexes many of us. I’ve had many clients, as young as 8 years old, make suicidal threats or express a desire to die. It’s difficult to wrap our minds around someone so young feeling the need to end it all. The foundational problem is often that these young traumatized kids often lack the resources to cope appropriately (see figure below). Without the appropriate coping skills, the after-effects of the trauma (i.e. pain) outweigh anything else. It is important that we all remember that some kids simply don’t know why they feel the way they do and require us to put the pieces of the puzzle together for them.
For many individuals who have experienced traumatic incidents (abuse, a car crash, a fire, a natural disaster, loss of a home, death of someone close, parental neglect, etc.) the way they perceive life and relationships can drastically be influenced by the traumatic experience. It has much to do with how the brain is wired (which occurs through social and emotional experience) and how social experiences (things in the environment, how others treat the person, etc.) have affected the individual.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a traumatic history, I encourage you to speak with them about possibly pursuing a trauma therapist. A trauma therapist is quite different from your typical therapist who provides psychotherapy. A trauma therapist is specifically trained to treat trauma and has experience with multiple cases, research studies, and data. Techniques, theories, attitudes, language, and conversations are very different with a trauma therapist. A trauma therapist can also work with the entire family unit or work with couples. You can search for a trauma therapist through the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. You can also read this very informative article on trauma and behavioral problems in children.
As always, I wish you well
This article was originally published on 3/25/2015 but has been updated to reflect accuracy and comprehensiveness.