How would you describe your parent or family caregiver?
Are (or were) they supportive, loving, and caring?
Did they meet some if not most of your emotional and psychological needs?
Good parents don’t get recognized as much as they should. As a product of a very dedicated, loving, and self-less mother, I can say that a good parent makes all the difference in a cold and empty world. As a youngster, we look to our parents or guardians to protect, love, and nurture us. Unfortunately, none of us are immune to trauma and even if your childhood was the best anyone could have, trauma has a way of eroding the positive memories.
This article will highlight some of the main challenges of good parents and guardians. It is important that you know I am not only referring to parents in this article, despite the title. I am also referring to family caregivers (i.e., aunts or uncles, grandparents, Godmother or fathers, etc) and guardians or adopted/foster parents.
Trauma can include but is not limited to: domestic violence, abuse (physical, sexual, emotional/psychological), parental severe and/or untreated mental illness, an unsuspected life event or death, a tumultuous natural disaster, and loss of stability in some form (i.e., financial, environmental, etc). Trauma can also include the unexpected loss of a parent, sibling, or other family members. Whatever the trauma, parents and/or guardians/family caregivers are often burdened by the burden their loved one is caring.
- Sexual reactivity or promiscuity: Kids who have been sexually abused often sexually abuse or violate other kids. But it also important that I clarify that not ALL kids who are sexually abused sexually abuse others. The reason for this is unclear but some theories do surface. Some examples include but are not limited to: internalized anger that gets projected onto other kids, curiosity is piqued which causes the child to “explore” with other children, etc. It’s a sad reality that between 70%-80% of children who are sexually abused end up abusing drugs. They are also more vulnerable to other mental health conditions such as major depression, eating disorders, or suicidal ideations. One in 10 children experiences sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. When kids are sexually traumatized it isn’t unlikely that they grow into adolescents or adults who engage in prostitution or harming others with sexual obsessions. Again, this is not all children but a small percentage do struggle in the teen and adult years.
- Mental Health Professionals don’t understand: When a parent has observed that their child is struggling with traumatic stress the first thing they think to do is reach out to a therapist. Sadly, not all therapists are trauma therapists or have been substantially educated/trained to understand it. Of course, most therapists know about trauma because they’ve read about it or may have taken a course or two. But a small percentage of therapists are actually trained, qualified, and certified. It is important to look for someone who is certified and trained in therapy. Parents who struggle with this process are often burned as their children are unlikely to receive the support they need to heal.
- Other children/siblings are affected: Children who are hurt often hurt others. This isn’t the case for all children but it is something that does tend to happen in families. In fact, sexual abuse of children doesn’t always involve a stranger. Research suggests that sexual abuse tends to occur in families and by someone the child knows well. A child who is struggling with trauma may begin to project their emotions onto a sibling or may lash out at siblings. Families often cave when a child is struggling with trauma and isn’t being treated.
- Marriage suffers: It is difficult to cope with an angry, depressed, or suicidal child struggling with a traumatic situation. The stress and exhaustion including compassion fatigue that occurs among the adults in a family can truly destroy a marriage. There is often little to no time or energy to improve the relationship, connect, or enjoy the relationship. Marriages often suffer because of a lack of intimacy, connection, and effort.
- Parental mental health suffers:
- It is heartbreaking: A child struggling with traumatic stress is heartbreaking. Most kids struggle with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and identity crises. It isn’t easy to encourage a child to attend therapy and benefit from it. In most cases, children aren’t excited to see a stranger to tell their problems to. Kids often decide to either resist the therapy or shut-down. This means that no progress will be made and the family is likely to remain in a state of chaos.
- Schools don’t always “hear” correctly: When a child begins to struggle in school it can be difficult for the school to understand why. Schools often suspect that children are inattentive, struggling with compliance, or bored/disengaged in class. Rarely does a school ever consider that perhaps the child is struggling with a trauma or family-related problem at home. It takes the parent(s) to help educate the school and advocate for the child.
- Parents get blamed: It isn’t unlikely that when a child is struggling with traumatic stress that the parent is blamed. Although parents need to be proactive in helping their child cope with traumatic stress, it isn’t always the fault of the parent that the child is struggling and finding it difficult to cope with symptoms. Parents should be helped and supported, not blamed.
- Child Protective Services doesn’t always help: Child Protective Services(CPS) is a national organization who protect the rights and safety of children, youths, and families. They are there to ensure no child is being abused or neglected behind closed doors in both the public and home setting. CPS also supports families who are struggling financially and would benefit from services geared toward supporting neglected children. Sadly, because CPS is often overwhelmed with millions of reports throughout the year, it isn’t unlikely for CPS to support a family for a certain amount of time and then close their services to the family. For example, let’s say that CPS is investigating a claim of sexual abuse and has visited your home as well as spoken to other informants. Let’s say CPS determines that no abuse can be substantiated and that the child abuse claim/report should be “closed” or discontinued. What do you think happens to that family? CPS closes and the child remains in the home if a claim of sexual abuse cannot be substantiated. Sadly, people know how to get around CPS if they need to and may lie or force the child to lie so CPS will leave the family alone. This is a tragedy.
- Extended family members judge: Extended family members such as grandparents, cousins, etc. may misinterpret the behaviors and emotional needs of a child who has experienced a traumatic experience. Children who have experienced trauma often exhibit behaviors characteristic of oppositional defiant disorder (i.e., non-compliance, rebellion, talking back, anger and resentment, etc) and ADHD (i.e., poor attention span, restlessness, irritability, hyperactivity, etc). Some kids also experience depression and increased anxiety which may lead to suicidal thoughts. Instead of family supporting the child and trying to understand the symptoms, they may unfairly judge the child and the parent. Trauma can truly disrupt healthy family dynamics.
- The “circle of support” decreases: The “circle of support” maybe other parents, neighbors, family members, or even co-workers. Sometimes this circle diminishes the more the parent reaches out for emotional support. Supporting a child struggling with traumatic stress can result in many sleepless nights including multiple trips to mental health providers. This can be both emotionally as well as psychologically draining. As a result, the parent may rely more on their “circle of support” which may cause them to feel burdened or alarmed. The end result of this is often distancing themselves from the needy parent.
- Employment/responsibility is difficult to maintain: When something traumatic happens it is often very difficult to maintain normal routines, commit to responsibilities, and maintain employment. Employment may begin to feel like a chore which may lead some parents to call off, partially tend to responsibilities, and feel disengaged from their work. When depression, anxiety, or increased stress begins to interfere with one’s livelihood, it is likely that the entire family unit will suffer the consequences. Routines are often ignored, money becomes strained, a parent may lose his or her job, and the normal day-to-day activities may be neglected. It’s a slippery slope downward.
- Nothing is working: Some parents feel that therapy is a waste of time. I tend to see this a lot with the dads I work with. Some parents may also feel therapy is a waste of resources, especially if therapy has been tried in the past with little to no success. When hope in the counseling relationship diminishes, parents may begin to believe that nothing is likely to help which can ultimately lead to further decline of functionality within the family.
If you are interested in learning more about traumatic stress, click here to watch the 5 aftereffects of traumatic experience:
As always, I wish you well.