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Stop the World, I Want to Feel Safe

How understanding trauma can help you and your children

It's not an easy time to be a survivor of the trauma of child abuse. Environmental disaster in the Gulf, terrorism, war, kidnapping and murder of children, earthquakes, devastating fires, tornadoes, floods, catastrophic illness, corporate layoffs, and economic misery -- there seems to be no end to news of horrific suffering in our country and around the world. To make matters worse,there's no escaping it. The media constantly bombards us with up-to-the-minute reports, bringing trauma into our family rooms, cars, elevators, offices, restaurants, fitness centers and nail salons. If you're having a tough time processing current events you are not alone; most people are... and if you were abused as a child it may be particularly tough.

In today's blog my intention is to provide an extremely abridged, hopefully user-friendly glance at how horrific events effect their victims and those, including children, who witness them in a loved one or on their TV or computer screens. I'll suggest things you can do to help yourself and your children to cope and to grow. In turn, in the comments section, I hope that some of you will be able to share suggestions of things that have helped you or people you know. Before I move on with my agenda however, I want to be clear: If you are having a very difficult time, now is the time to get direct, personal help. If you are in a crisis situation dial 911 or go to your nearest hospital emergency room. If you have a therapist, make an appointment; if you don't have one yet, get a referral and make an appointment. Thank you, and here goes...

A person experiencing trauma is plagued with terrifying thoughts and strong, painful feelings such as fear or helplessness, but often feels shame about these feelings and suffers in silence. He or she may withdraw, detach, become irritable, unable to concentrate, suffer from sleep disturbance, become aggressive, and may experience flashbacks. In Trauma and Recovery: from Domestic Violence to Political Terror (1992), Judith Herman, MD, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, explains that during a traumatic event the linguistic encoding of memory is deactivated, causing the central nervous system to revert to sensory forms of memory. The body reacts to these stimuli as if there is a continuing threat, and the trauma survivor may overreact or seem to shut down. He or she may avoid situations that evoke thoughts and feelings reminiscent of the trauma, or experience emotional numbing in both trauma-related situations and in everyday life.

Research reported in Psychiatric Times (March, 1977) by Bessell van der Kolk, M.D., an internationally recognized leader in the field of trauma, indicates that complete or partial amnesia occurs after virtually every form of traumatic experience, with childhood sexual abuse, witnessing a murder of a family member, and combat exposure yielding the highest rates. Memories typically emerge during exposure to sensory or feeling stimuli that match elements associated with the trauma. It's also common for a trauma survivor to suffer a combination of vivid recall for some elements associated with the trauma, and amnesia for others. Reactions to trauma fade over time for many, and they seem to experience fairly good adjustment throughout their lives except that they typically don't react to stress the way others do, but instead, often feel or act as if they're being traumatized all over again.

Experts believe that the more direct a person's exposure to a traumatic event is, the more likely it is that the after effects will be intense. But second-hand exposure can also be taumatizing, as it was for many of us on September 11, 2001, as we watched instant replays of terrorist-driven planes fly into the World Trade Center on our TV's, and became paralyzed with shock, grief, anxiety, and fear. Over the past several weeks some of us have experienced similar reactions in response to images of the suffering pelicans and birds immersed in the hot oil of the Gulf, or panoramic views of dead birds floating in it.

In Common Shock: Witnessing Violence Every Day: How We Are Harmed; How We Can Heal (2003), Kaethe Weingarten, Ph.D., a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, explains that none of us can avoid witnessing violence, whether in nature or in relationships, and we need to be aware of both the toxic power of this witnessing and its tremendous healing potential. Compassionate witnessing, which contributes to the transformation of violence on every level from the individual to the societal, requires that we take time for reflection and self-care. We need a community of support in our personal lives so that we can process the meaningfulness of our own experiences as victims and witnesses. This enables us to develop a capacity for empathic listening, and insures that our compassion extends from an open heart, rather than an overwhelmed one. When we do the important work of bearing witness, we dissolve the anguishing wall of isolation between the victim and society, and create a bridge of emotional connection, thereby lessening the impact of trauma.

A continual task in the process of healing from trauma is that of assigning language to experience. This is one reason why psychotherapy promotes healing. Each time we tell our story it lessens the power it has over us. Transformed, the trauma story shifts. Shame and fear are erased by dignity, wisdom, and peace. As one sexual abuse survivor told me, "keeping the secret only keeps in the shame." But regardless of what the trauma experience is, the act of telling one's story also has its own set of problems, which are rarely easy to resolve, but always important to address. We're often rewarded for keeping silent, or for denying or displacing our feelings, and punished for speaking the truth. In domestic violence situations this can feel like, and in some cases actually be, a choice between life and death. In other family relationships and in friendships, it presents the trauma survivor with a painful dilemma, eloquently described by Kaethe Weingarten in Witnessing, Wonder, and Hope (Family Process, Winter, 2000):

"If I don't tell you what I really think and feel, I will feel disconnected from you. But, if I do tell you what I really think and feel, you will withdraw from me. What I have to say is so heinous, horrible, toxic, unacceptable, that you will be unable to stand me."

This dilemma contributes to creating a "conspiracy of silence" that far too often follows trauma, and is profoundly destructive, because it attests to the person's, family's, society's, community's and nation's inability to integrate the trauma. When there is no meaningful dialogue exchanged, fear, confusion, isolation, sadness, anger, shame, and blame can prevail and are transmitted to the next generations. This is in sharp contrast to widespread research findings that social support is the most important factor in coping with traumatic stress. (Danieli, Yael, International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, 1998). There certainly are ways in which the media is helpful in this process. Larry King's telethon last night about the Gulf Oil Disaster and how we can help, is a good example of that, as is the legacy of the Oprah Winfrey Show's impact in raising awareness of many issues, but right now I'm thinking of her powerful, healing impact on victims of domestic violence. And the "In Memoriam" segment at the end of ABC's Sunday monring show, This Week, is nothing less than a prayerful ritual of grief for my husband and I.

Children are helpless bystanders to all kinds of trauma, and powerless witnesses of their parents' emotional turmoil. Take the trauma of war for example. Even if a child is not directly related to war through the experience of an immediate relative having been deployed, she or he still hears about war and struggles to understand what it means and what is implied in the atmosphere of anxiety and fear surrounding it. What children need most from us is for us to be attuned to them, so that we can teach them.

Fern Reiss, in her book,Terrorism and Kids (2001), discusses guidelines which I think are appropriate for supporting children through many kinds of events that carry the potential to trigger traumatic stress reactions. She recommends limiting TV and Internet viewing, explaining that pictures are more disturbing to children than words are. Don't let kids listen to news reports alone, and when, for whatever reason it is appropriate for them to be watching the news, cuddle them during that time; it does a lot to comfort them. Discuss their reactions, help them to label feelings, and tell them some of your own. Be careful about what reading material you leave around the house. Make sure your child doesn't feel responsible for your feelings. While children need to see you react, need you to explain things to them in age-appropriate language, and they receive implicit permission to grieve if they see you grieve, process some of your feelings away from them. Think about their developmental level. And don't overlook infants, thinking they're not affected. Infants have an intuitive awareness of the feelings around them. They might get fussy. Soothe them by keeping them close. Preschoolers need reassurance that you will keep them safe, and they value hiugging, drawing, and playing. Be empathic and remind them that their immediate world is safe. Do something active together, like go for a nature walk or a bike ride.

In Children and Trauma: A Guide for Parents and Professionals (1997), Cynthia Monahan recommends that you keep to your routine and make time for fun. Make lists with your children of things to do, things you're grateful for,and what they want to be when they grow up. It will remind both of you that life goes on and that things can get better. School age kids are less capable than older kids of communicating, so spend time with them and initiate discussion, Teenagers need adults because they often understand the situation well enough to be terrified. As confirmation of this, after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2008, my colleagues and I had a flurry of new referrals of high school seniors who were afraid to go away to college. Trauma by humans affects kids and adults more negatively than trauma caused by natural disasters. Brainstorm with your children about how your family can participate in something that will either help the victims or help to give the event new meaning. And never underestimate the value of love and compassion.

In Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (2009), Laura van Dermoot Lipsky explains that maintaining compassion for ourselves and for others is of paramount importance. She recommends that we slow down and take stock of where we are each day; that a mindful, connected journey, both internally and externally, allows us to be stewards of our own capacity to be helpful. She reminds us that we don't control many things in our lives, but we can control how we interact with our situation from moment to moment. Likewise, Kaethe Weingarten (2003) notes that "few of us are in a position to change the world dramatically, with one action, but all of us can change the world by transforming how we witness the violence and violation we observe daily."

Do you remember the days before cell phones, email, facebook and twitter? If so, you may remember a jingle from the old telephone company TV ads: "Reach out and touch someone." That jingle certainly is applicable now. We need someone to confide in; we need social support; we need to build caring communities. The best advice I can give is for you to reach out and touch someone with your interest, with your caring, with your story, with your understanding, with your compassion, with your smile, with your sense of humor, with your sadness, with your tears, with your helping hands. Reach out and ask for help. Reach out and give it. Open your heart and your mind. Connect.


In addition to the books and authors I have mentioned in this blog you may enjoy visiting one or more of the following websites for inspiration about where and how to connect and promote healing: : ; ; ; ; ; ; ;