If you are the spouse, family member or parent of a child who has experienced trauma, you may find yourself feeling helpless. It can feel overwhelming to figure out how to best support your loved one. No two people are exactly alike in how they experience trauma and as a result, recovery from trauma is highly individualized. It can be difficult for a person to learn how to manage and overcome their traumatic experience as well as helping others to understand what is happening for them at the same time. Therefore, you as the loved one, often feel lost and confused about your role in their recovery process.
Sometimes you don’t know whether your spouse, family member or child has experienced a traumatic event. People often don’t talk about trauma. Others simply don’t realize their experience is considered traumatic.
According to the CDC, “Most everyone has been through a stressful event in his or her life. When the event, or series of events, causes a lot of stress, it is called a traumatic event. Traumatic events are marked by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury, or the threat of serious injury or death. Traumatic events affect survivors, rescue workers, and the friends and relatives of victims who have been involved. They may also have an impact on people who have seen the event either firsthand or on television.”
At The Center For Growth, located in Philadelphia PA, Mechanicsville VA, Ocean City NJ and Santa Fe NM, our trauma therapists define trauma as a deeply disturbing experience, which can be sexual, physical and/or emotional. Our definition of trauma therapy is purposely wide because we believe that trauma can come in all shapes and sizes. With that being said, the healing process looks different based on the duration and the extent of the trauma as well as the supports in place.
Traumatic experiences tend to change the way we view the world. We develop coping mechanisms in order to protect ourselves from future traumatic experiences. These coping mechanisms, which are needed at the time, leave a significant impact on our worldview. The effects of trauma vary from person to person. No two people react to a negative, traumatic event in the same way. Trauma therapy is a specific therapeutic approach designed to help individuals, couples and families, develop new strategies to heal and better cope with the challenges that life throws our direction.
Everyone at some point in their lives experiences trauma. Trauma is a universal experience. However, the actual type of trauma a person experiences can vary a great deal. For example, growing up with an alcoholic parent, being sexually assaulted, parents divorcing, moving, changing schools, or being picked last for a pick-up game of basketball are different experiences but can all be traumatic. In addition, the degree to which the event or experience impacts a person can be very different. Watching your family be tortured and killed in front of you while you are held at gun point is a different experience than reading about someone else’s family being tortured. Similarly, being in a car accident where you were the driver, and being the only survivor, can feel different if this was your first time ever driving versus having driven for 10 years on a daily basis. Most people would consider these experiences to be traumatic but how you actually experience and react to them can make a difference in how they are processed and stored in your brain. Our goal is not to determine the type of trauma, but rather to understand the person’s experience of their trauma and to help them engage in meaningful trauma recovery work. By letting go and healing from the past, we are able to step into the present and into the life we want for ourselves.
War: Ukraine War, Afghanistan Wars, Sierra Civil War, Sudan Wars, China perpetrating the Uighurs
Natural disasters: Paradise Fire in California, Hurricane Sandy, Brazil Mudslides, Winter Storm Uri
Physical abuse, assault, or neglect
Racial trauma: Civil War, Black Lives Matter, being underpaid, underpromoted, or being looked at suspiciously
Serious accidents: Car Accidents, house fire, drowing, or school shootings
Domestic violence: serious parental fights, kidnappings, hearing marital rape, or experiencing emotional abuse
Witnessing death; watching a loved one take their last breath from natural causes, sudden heart attack, or violence on television
Loss of a parent, child, spouse, sibling or loved one: this could be caused by death, or parental divorce and having a parent move, having a parent go inpatient for medical or mental health reasons, losing custody of a child, having a child die from a medical issue, getting into a serious fight with a grown sibling and losing contact
Crime victimization: going through the process of reporting a crime to the police and having to relive the experience, and then through the legal system and being questioned all over again.
Instability in the home: You could be the child and feel the parental tensions. You could be the spouse observing your child and spouse fighting. You could be the younger sibling watching the older sibling fighting with the parents. It could be any situation where you feel you have no control over what is happening in the home.
Divorce / Separation: Your parents break up and now you are negotiating two households and two sets of rules. You could be the divorced spouse who no longer has daily contact with your child.
Parenting struggles: You could be the child sensing parental problems. You could be the parent unsure how to manage parental problems and the potential impact it will have on your child.
Emotional abuse: Your parents could be emotionally abusive to you. Your child could be emotionally abusive to you and you are ill prepared for how to regain control over the situation.
Bullying: Your parents may be bullies and not know how to ask for their needs to be met. Your child or spouse may be inclined to bully and you don’t know how to manage this.
Financial insecurity: There could be many ways that financial security is present. For example, constant tension around having enough money to pay the rent or mortgage, enough money to provide healthy meals for yourself or for you child, tween or teen, only enough money to pay for one child’s athletic desires, or tutoring needs or knowing that your parents love you, but that they can’t afford to meet your basic needs, and that you need to get a job to pay for things that all your friends take for granted.
Sudden relocation: You may suddenly have your world disrupted because of a parental move that has nothing to do with you, and you weren’t even consulted. Sometimes the move might be dictated by a natural disaster or even the child’s educational or medical needs.
Loss: Loss can come in many forms including loss of a job, loss of a school, loss of friends, loss of the favorite babysitter, loss of a pet, loss of your health. The list is endless.
The effects of physical, emotional, and sexual trauma can have some similarities but also some differences. Below are some examples of trauma effects that a person may experience as a result of a traumatic experience.
Physical trauma effects may include: Sadness, anger, grief, discomfort with certain types of closeness or physicality, extra awareness or increased need for physical safety/distance from others in certain settings, flashbacks or memory loss, change in sleep and eating patterns, or change in one’s usual routine and functioning. Physical trauma doesn’t necessarily leave physical, visible scars. These scars are sometimes unable to be seen and may impact an individual’s ability to be comfortable in certain situations involving physical space and distance, touch/affection, etc. It is possible to endure serious physical trauma, and survive without injury, but still occasionally feeling the physical impact you previously experienced.
Emotional Trauma effects may include anxiety, flashbacks, panic attacks, poor decision making, irritability, change in sleep or eating (more or less of either or both), isolation, inability to continue typical routine and functioning, etc. Emotional trauma is especially challenging for the survivor and those around him/her because often the emotional trauma is invisible. It’s not a lost limb, or a cast on someone’s arm. It is often deep emotional pain and struggle that can be hard for outsiders to understand.. It also poses a challenge for the individual experiencing the emotional trauma. A common question, “When/who do I tell about what I’ve gone through?”
Sexual Trauma- The effects of sexual trauma often include a range of emotional, behavioral, physical, and cognitive changes. A few examples include: fear, shock, sadness, anger, change in sleep and/or eating (more or less of either or both), inability to focus, distrust or discomfort around others or large crowds, memory loss, flashbacks, change in sexual behaviors (avoidance of sex completely, or hypersexual behavior, etc), stomach pains, headaches, exhaustion, etc. Sexual trauma can be especially confusing because even though it’s a sexual violation, and we are engaging in behavior against our own wants, it is common for one’s body to respond positively to the activity, whether by arousal or even orgasm. The common response to this tends to be, “Does this mean I actually wanted to be raped?” or “Does this mean I am gay/straight/etc.?” These are merely physiological responses, and nothing more. For example, if someone has a ticklish spot, and they don’t want to be tickled at that moment, they are still going to feel a tickling sensation, which will cause them to laugh, because that’s the response that type of touch elicits. That is the same case when it comes to sexual trauma. It is your body responding to the activity, not your head, and not your emotions.
Increased anxiety, being hyper alert or easily startled, restless, increased intensity with emotions, overly eager
Overwhelmed, numbing out, feeling nothing, withdrawn, unable to do the basic things, avoiding social situations, avoiding things connected to their traumatic experience
Irritable, lashing out, angry, intimidating, uncontrollable rage, screaming and outbursts
Struggling to self sooth, unable to relax
Struggling at school or work
Feeling useless, sad, hopeless, desperate, forlorn, lost, despair, despondent, discouraged
Distant, detached, disinterested, or more reserved from friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances
Self blame, sharing feelings of confusion, contempt, overwhelming shame, paralyzing guilt, uncontrollable remorse, strong feelings of regret, intense feelings of responsibility, self-condemnation, self-reproach, misbehavior, and transgressions
Low self esteem and insecurity
Changes in sleep, appetite, and behaviors
Child, Tween, Teen trauma is challenging to face. Parents and children often feel overwhelmed by the trauma and the effects of the traumatic experience. Parents must take the first steps to address the trauma within the family. Knowing what to do, and how to take the first steps for the healing process to begin isn’t easy for anyone. There isn’t one magical path. Every situation is different. Seeing your child, tween, teen suffer is painful. Your job is to protect, and sometimes it’s not easy to figure out exactly what that looks like, or how to do so. To help you develop a plan of action, we encourage you to reflect on these 3 questions: How severe is the child, tween, teen trauma (and you may not know this answer)? How did your family of origin respond to traumatic events? And what were the long term effects of the trauma on your child, tween, teen? Answers to these questions is information that can assist you in developing a plan of action. We strongly encourage you to reach out to your support team to help. Trauma recovery is not always intuitive.
Trauma Therapy is different for everyone but there are some general areas that are addressed. These areas have been grouped below in early stage, middle stage, and late stage.
Creating a safe environment so that healing is even possible.
Establishing safety in one’s body, one’s relationship and the rest of one's life.
Identifying and understanding the experience as having been traumatic.
Reaching within oneself to find one's inner strengths, and using all available resources.
Learning and practicing self care.
Having a space that the client can claim in any way that they want.
Processing the entire experience as one story that is their story to tell. This process of acknowledging their own experience and naming all the parts as one piece allows the person to start to develop ownership.
Regulating one's own emotions and learning skills to avoid emotional overwhelm.
Family unit recognizing that this happened to them, or to their child and creating a plan that will best work for them as a unit (as appropriate).
Gathering the memories and taking inventory of what happened.
Addressing the traumatic event and the grief for what happened to self.
Working through traumatic event(s) to reduce flashbacks and nightmares and other trauma symptoms.
Loss of what could have been and the impact it has on your life moving forward.
Building a solid foundation of safety.
Memory processing methods to let go of the disturbing memories (EMDR, journal writing, cognitive restructuring, compartmentalization, burning memories, etc.)
Reconnecting with people
Finding meaningful activities,
Identifying lingering attractions and how to spot dangerous relationships and cycles
Letting go of past coping mechanisms that worked at the time and regularly using new positive coping mechanisms
Integration - Understanding the event as part of your life and not allowing it to define you.
Being vulnerable, trusting yourself and learning how to trust others.
EMDR is a therapeutic approach that can be used in trauma therapy. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy. Developed by Francine Shapiro, this therapy uses eye movements to help reduce and eliminate the distress that is associated with traumatic memories. Disturbing events can get trapped in the brain with the original sights, sounds, smells, etc causing the individual to continue to experience the event like it is occurring in the present day. The use of eye movements seems to access that information to help the brain process the event and integrate the memory in the brain as a past event. The process neutralizes the memory and significantly reduces the distress associated with the memory. EMDR therapy also processes current situations that trigger negative symptoms and addresses the desired responses for future situations involving any challenges or triggers of the past memory.
The general psychological themes that get explored across the 3 stages of therapy are the following:
Safety - Without establishing safety, minimal work can begin.
Sense of Agency, Control and Empowerment - Central to the trauma therapy work is the theme of powerlessness, helplessness, and loss of control with regards to the traumatic events as well as the physical and emotional symptoms that occur. Gaining a sense of agency and control helps with processing, emotional management, and moving towards integration.
Trust - Learning how to trust others and how to trust your own judgment is an important theme in trauma therapy.. Feelings of distrust, and isolating must be addressed so that the walls can be lowered to let others in. People are naturally curious and need intimacy to thrive. Re-enactment of the abusive patterns is a theme that must be tackled so that the individual can recognize how their own behaviors can shift the narrative to build healthy and supportive relationships.
We believe that clients naturally have the needed tools to heal from a traumatic experience. Sometimes they simply need a little extra support to facilitate the healing process. While the themes of trauma work remain the same for all clients, every trauma client is unique. We believe the major benefit of working one to one with a trauma therapist is that the trauma therapist can design a treatment plan that fits your unique needs. Treatment looks different when working with children, tweens, teens, adults, couples and families. Getting help for you or your child can feel like an act of faith. It’s faith in yourself that you, or a family member are worth it. Help is available.
Since 1997 when we opened, we have helped many children, tweens and teens, adults and families work through their traumatic experiences. Life is unpredictable and full of challenges. When you have experienced trauma, speak up, trauma therapy is available. As a parent, or legal guardian, the best support that we can give our children is unconditional love and the tools needed to face the obstacles that we can’t protect them from. As parents, or legal guardians, we know how invested you are in the well being of your children and want nothing more than to help your child, tween or teen develop the skills needed to overcome their past trauma as well as general adversary that they may encounter in life. Our team of highly specialized trauma therapists are here to assist not only your child, tween, teen and but you. Learning how to not only trust, but to flourish after a traumatic experience can be challenging. You don’t have to do this alone. Help is available.