In the Garden of Good and Evil

From altruism to violent conflict.

Helping Psychologically Wounded Children Heal

What are the roots of psychological wounds and how can they heal?

What are the sources of psychological wounds in children? Primary among them are physical, sexual, or psychological abuse in their homes. Bessel van der Kolk wrote in 2009 that in the U.S. “each year three million children…are reported by Child Protective Services for abuse and neglect.” Certainly many more are not reported. Physical deprivation is also wounding, especially if others around a child have sufficient food and material goods, while the child is deprived of these.  Psychological neglect, the absence of warmth, affection or interest in a child by parents and other people in his or her environment is intensely wounding, apparently even more than physical abuse, which can be occasional, while neglect tends to be constant and pervasive. Being physically or verbally harassed or excluded by peers can be greatly wounding, especially if it is intense and persistent.

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 Being a survivor of genocide or other intense violence against one’s group can lead to severe psychological woundedness. Children who have survived such violence had often been in  great danger, or actually victimized—like a small group of children that  survived in Auschwitz. Or they may have witnessed great violence, killings, as in Rwanda, and degrading treatment. But even the children who were not alive at the time  of a genocide or mass violence can be wounded, as wounded adults raise them in sometimes harsh, sometimes extremely overprotective, sometimes other problematic ways.  

Some adult survivors talk about what has happened all the time. Others remain completely silent about what happened to them, to relatives who were killed, to their group. The children of both may be wounded, in the latter case by “knowing but not knowing” –knowing that something very bad happened to their parents, but little beyond that.    

Many of these experiences are traumatizing—especially those intensely threatening and painful, without the child having any control over them. Children can also experience more than one type of victimization or suffering. Children and adults can also be wounded by “life injuries”-- a loved one dying, the closest friend of a child moving away.

 We human beings, including children, are highly resilient. Most of us manage to function—have jobs and families—in spite of traumatizing and painful experiences. But many people who have had such experiences, even if they function, may suffer, and behave in  relationships to other people in ways that may be far from optimal. Healing can help improve our emotional life, our relationships, and thereby other people’s lives around us.

           Engagement with painful experience is one avenue to healing. For most people it is useful to engage with, rather than avoid memories of such experiences. This has to happen under supportive conditions that allow a person to control the degree and speed of their engagement with painful experience, and in connection to people who offer acknowledgment of suffering and empathy. This is what happens in good therapies. But engagement with experience can also take place through practices in schools; and affectionate relationships to parents, teachers, and peers are central to healing.

In schools children can be exposed to stories that describe experiences that are less intense, and possibly somewhat removed, from the varied traumatiizing experiences they may have had. Engaging with such stories, talking about them, writing about them, together empathically examining the experience of the characters in the stories, can contribute to healing. Later students may write stories of their own. Teachers need to grant students choice and control--over the topics they write about, and the extent and ways they talk about the stories they read or wrote. Still, teachers are important guides, important to provide safety, and over time may guide students to move the protagonists in their stories from despair to hope. With young children providing them with materials to draw, and also the right materials for play, following the long standing practice of play therapy, can lead them to enact their experiences. Here also, empathic support is essential. The specifics of practices should be appropriate for the age and developmental level of children. It should also be appropriate for the culture—of a country or particular community.

It is widely recognized that healing is advanced when people can make meaning out of their suffering. Creating a story that describes one=s experience, and to the extent possible makes sense of and creates meaning out of it, helps with healing. But how can one create meaning out of horrendous events, like abuse in one’s own home, or genocide? Or even out of being persistently bullied, persecuted by other children?

Some meaning can come from understanding the roots of violence, the influences that lead to it. Working with adults in Rwanda, my associates and I found such understanding highly beneficial. Providing information about the origins and impact of genocide, and having participants apply such information to their own experience of the genocide there, led to more positive attitudes by members of the former victim and perpetrators groups toward each other, fewer trauma symptoms, and other benefits. Understanding can even benefit young children. As one example, it can make sense to them that people can learn to think badly of others they don’t even know, which then leads them to do harmful things.

One way to derive meaning from suffering is through commitment to help prevent others’ suffering. Learning how to be an active bystander who stops the bullying of a peer, for example, is both meaningful and empowering. It requires both motivation and skills, and often the ability to gain allies. 

            Affectionate human connections are another essential source of healing. Trauma diminishes people, makes the world seem dangerous, creates vulnerability and mistrust.  It tends to create disconnection from other people. Research on resilience, in children and adults who come from difficult environments or have had intensely painful experiences but function well in spite of this, shows that they often had loving and supportive people in their lives.

Warmth and affection are core elements of raising caring and not-violent children. They can transform experiences that otherwise might lead to aggressiveness, withdrawal, or ineffectiveness. Research by Harry Harlow and his associates has shown that monkeys who have been isolated from others in the first six months of their lives were very disruptive in their social and sexual behavior. They were greatly helped by affectionate body contact, after they were put together with infant monkeys who embraced them and clung to them. Socially ineffective children were also helped by being paired with younger children.    

 Warm, affectionate relations between parents and children, and between teachers and students in schools, can help heal wounds. Creating classrooms, in which students have positive connections with each other, is also healing. According to Anna Freud, the capacity of very young children who survived together in Auschwitz, who were initially wild and uncooperative with adults, to develop normal relationships was due to their deep connection to each other. This maintained their humanity.

Love, affection, positive connections to other people, developing feelings of effectiveness and the power to exercise control over important events in one’s life all help children (and adults) to see the world as at least potentially benevolent. They fulfill basic psychological needs such as the need for security, for connection to other people, and for effectiveness, and provide an understanding of reality—of a positive rather than scary reality.

 Ervin Staub’s latest book is Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. His forthcoming book is The roots of goodness: Inclusive caring, moral courage, altruism born of suffering, active bystandership and heroism. Oxford. Expected publication in early 2014.

                                                 

 

Ervin Staub, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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