What do you know about trauma?
What makes a traumatic situation traumatic?
Emotional and psychological trauma affects about 26% of the child US population. About 60% of adults report experiencing trauma in some form as a child. When speaking with families who have experienced trauma, I often explain it to be an event or circumstance that negatively affects an individual who does not have the appropriate coping skills/tools to overcome the trauma.
Trauma can result from any circumstance that outweighs your ability to cope. Simply put, the event is terrifying, unnerving, and unexpected.
This article will discuss 11 situations we often don’t realize are very traumatizing for a lot of people.
Trauma is a topic that I have become very passionate about over my 10 years in the field. This passion led me to branch out in my field a few years ago to work with children, teens, and families who have been traumatized. As you will see by a quick view of this blog’s history my main topic is trauma. There is a reason for this.
Society has, sadly, ignored the importance of understanding trauma for years which is why I tend to focus on it a lot here. Thankfully, today’s studies, articles, research, and mental health professionals are promoting the importance of greater awareness of trauma and how it affects humanity.
Trauma can have a major impact on how we think, feel, and behave. It can affect us after years of therapy, growth, and change. Sadly, because trauma isn’t well understood in mainstream society, there are a few life events or circumstances that we tend to ignore as traumatic because we can’t always see why a situation would be traumatic.
But I think it is important to understand that trauma isn’t necessarily connected to the event itself. It is connected to how the individual processes it and how they use their resources to cope.
Some of the life events we fail to recognize as traumatizing include but are not limited by:
- Child abuse: Child abuse can include sexual, physical, emotional/psychological abuse and neglect. Neglect can occur when a caretaker is unable to provide for basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, etc. A neglectful caretaker will often leave kids to their own devices and ignore/”forget” to be a parent. These children are often removed from such homes by child protective services (CPS) and placed in the foster/adoption system or with a more stable family member. That “more stable family member” may not be that much better than the adults the child was removed from. Children who are abused in any of the ways above are often removed from the home by CPS which can be traumatic in and of itself. Sadly, there are cases in which the abuse is so insidious or difficult to prove that children may not be removed from the home and will grow up under abusive behaviors. These children grow into adolescents or adults who struggle with flashbacks, night sweats and terrors, depression or anxiety, sleep difficulties, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, or psychotic symptoms.
- Domestic violence: Children who grow up under parents who engage in frequent domestic battles are likely to suffer from post-traumatic symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, night terrors or nightmares, flashbacks, racing thoughts, or high levels of stress and sometimes even hallucinations. Domestic violence can include any type of abuse toward a spouse, including sexual abuse. During the beginning of my career I worked in a residential center for children and had learned of a child (age 9) who struggled with enuresis (i.e., incontinence or difficulty holding one’s urine), fits of rage and physical aggression, changing moods, and crying spells after being removed from a home in which her father physically, emotionally, and sexually abused her step-mother. She witnessed (by seeing and hearing) her step-mother being abused almost everyday. This abuse began to affect her emotionally and psychologically as well as affect her ability to learn in school and follow rules at home.
- Unexpected murder/death: Who is ever ready for an unexpected death? Who is ever ready for an unexpected death of someone who is young? Most people wrongly assume that death and dying is an unimportant topic for those who are youthful and vibrant. The only population of people who consider the reality of death and dying are those individuals who are 65 and older. Sadly, we, as a society, believe that the topic of death and dying should never occur among the youthful. An unexpected death is very traumatizing at all stages of life, but especially for family members who lose a younger family member.
- Chronic illness: Chronic illness can be very traumatizing, especially if the illness is terminal. Cancer, diabetes, stroke, multiple or unsuccessful surgeries, and illnesses with severe symptoms can result in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The worry, anxiety, depression, and stress that overwhelms the individual with the illness and those who love the individual, can be very overpowering. Terminal illnesses such as certain forms of cancer can truly result in increased levels of anxiety and depression. In addition, having to take multiple medications, get multiple shots, or experience multiple abrasive tests or procedures can also be traumatizing, especially for young children. Thankfully, hospitals like Children’s Hospital strive to make seeing doctors a positive experience for children.
- Psychiatric/medical treatment: About 1 year ago I saw an adolescent client who struggled with years of medical procedures and medical doctors who either did not believe she was experiencing physical pain or doctors who could not find the cause of the physical pain. This young lady struggled with multiple diagnoses that did not make sense, abrasive procedures that resulted in a week or a month to recover, and embarrassing referrals to psychiatrists for the psychiatric treatment she didn’t need. She came to me for trauma-informed therapy after years of suffering and feeling she would never get better or get out of the healthcare realm. She reported feeling misunderstood and called “crazy.” She wanted to learn coping skills for dealing with multiple doctors who she felt did not believe her. She began to struggle with night-terrors or nightmares that would interrupt her sleep. She was stressed. She was traumatized by repeated negative experiences.
- Migration/Immigration: Can you imagine the kind of fear and humiliation parents of illegal status experience when trying to pursue a better life for themselves and their families? We can’t assume that all illegal immigrants are “sneakily” living in the nation to profit. Many have no other choice but to leave their country for safety, medical or mental health care, or survival. We cannot (in the name of political correctness) ignore the fact that many women with young children attempt to cross the border to seek a higher standard of living for their children and their families. Just as we cannot lump everybody together in the U.S. based on color, age, etc., we cannot lump all immigrants together and consider them “illegal criminals.” Some desperate parents have escaped from very imprisoning and dangerous situations just to push their children over the border to safety. In other cases, American adults may adopt children from other countries and fail to apply for permanent status. Every situation is different. But one thing remains the same: the entire process can be traumatizing. Migration to another country is also traumatizing.
- Loss of employment/housing: Loss of employment (resignation with no plan to return to work, retirement, or being fired) can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Our jobs are the foundation of our self-esteem and self-talk. When there are challenges at work or you have been fired (i.e., “let go”) it is very easy to fall into a rut of depression. Most people have tied their entire identity into work and once the individual resigns or is fired, it may become difficult to re-build that identity. The fact that unpaid bills can lead to shut-off notices, repossession, decreasing credit score, limited food in the house, loss of shelter and comfort, etc. is traumatizing to say the least.
- Parental alienation: I’m sure we can all agree that every parent should be a good parent. Parents who alienate their children are very disliked in our society due to the emotional and psychological trauma they cause the innocent child. Children who are alienated by their parents often experience low self-esteem, self-hatred, flashbacks of cruel and mean actions by the parent(s), and depression or anxiety. If a child has been severely alienated by their parent(s), symptoms of PTSD are likely to occur.
- Parental severe mental illness: Severe mental illness can also be traumatizing for the person experiencing the symptoms and for loved ones. Severe mental illness often includes severe psychotic behaviors (delusions and hallucinations and thought disturbance), severe cycling of bipolar symptoms such as mania and depression, schizophrenia, and severe and untreated depression. PTSD that is untreated can co-occur with psychotic symptoms. For children being raised under a parent with a severe mental illness that is untreated, they can also experience trauma symptoms not limited to intense fear, negative memories or flashbacks, an inability to trust others, and mental health symptoms. Having a very overbearing parent with a personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder, anti-social personality disorder, or narcissism can be traumatizing as well. Research suggests that children raised under an abusive and potentially unstable parent can develop symptoms characteristic of Dissociation Identity Disorder (DID – formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder).
- Adoption/Child Protective Services: It wasn’t until I began working alongside CPS that I was able to see the “inside stories” of those who have been placed in the adoption/foster system. An authentic adult (in this for all the right reasons) who takes it upon themselves to raise another person’s child is truly someone to admire. However, there are some people who should never adopt and who should receive a full psychiatric evaluation if questions about mental health stability arise. Some foster/adoptive parents struggle with untreated or poorly treated mental health and behavioral health problems. Some are physically, sexually, or emotionally/psychologically abusive. Others can be very strict and unfair. Being adopted by an unstable adult can feel like a nightmare. Previous clients have shared their horror stories with me and I can confidently say that these individuals were very much traumatized by the adoption/foster system and the parent who received them. In addition, it can be very traumatizing to a young child when CPS comes into the home to remove the child from an environment the child has grown accustomed to. Some battered children would rather continue life with an abuser than to be taken by CPS and placed in a system where further abuse (even by the system itself) can occur.
- Miscarriage or inability to conceive: It wasn’t until I began working alongside therapists who spent their careers providing services to expectant mothers that I learned just how traumatic conception, loss of the fetus, or stillborn birth could be to a woman. I once saw a young woman who struggled to conceive for years and once she finally did, she lost the baby 2 months later. She struggled with depression for years over the loss of the baby. She contributed the loss of the baby to her level of adequacy and ability to please her husband. To make matters worse, she began to see images of the events leading up to the miscarriage.
- Divorce: Believe it or not, divorce can be a traumatic situation for a lot of people. Depending on how problematic your marriage was will depend on how bothersome, draining, and traumatic it will be. Litigation, custody, child support, etc can also make divorce rather traumatic for individuals who have had violent marriages including domestic violence, narcissistic abuse, sociopathy, and a host of other problems. I have found that many of my clients under age 12 struggle with the separation of their parents. Divorce becomes traumatic when mom and dad begin to argue over who gets to keep what, over where the kids will go to school or be raised, and other parenting tasks. Most kids feel very alone and confused as well as afraid when things get ugly in divorce.
Can you think of circumstances or situations that may be traumatizing to you? If so, I look forward to your insights and perspectives.
For tips on practical ways to cope, see the video below:
I wish you well
Psychologytoday.com. (2013). The impact of parental alienation on children. Co-Parenting after divorce. Retrieved June 5, 2016, from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/co-parenting-after-divorce/201304/the-impact-parental-alienation-children.
This article was originally published 11/9/2016 and then updated 09/09/2017. It has been updated once again to reflect comprehensiveness and updates on this topic.