Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Author, Mental Health Therapist, Researcher, Expert in Attachment Trauma

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Catch-22 for Victims of Trauma

Bleached vintage portrait of a sad and lonely teenager I work with trauma victims, young and old.  It is an honor to be allowed to walk the journey of healing with individuals facing challenges brought on by traumatic stress. Although most people sympathize with victims of abuse or violence when they hear about such events in the news, the symptoms experienced by traumatized individuals often include behaviors that cause interpersonal problems, such as aggression, anger, and isolation.  This leads to a “Catch-22,” in that trauma victims need emotional support from others to help the healing process — yet the symptoms lead to relationship problems.  The trauma therapist is often the individual’s first encounter with someone who understands what is happening.

To say that traumatized children have challenging symptoms and behaviors is probably an understatement.  Children affected by chronic traumatic stress often have a poor sense of self and the lowest self-worth imaginable. They are anxious and mistrustful, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. They relive the earlier events of their lives through nightmares or flashes of memories, triggered by reminders of the past, or through compulsive behavioral reenactments of early events.  Children suffering from traumatic stress have chronic high levels of cortisol and adrenaline keeping their nerves on edge and lowering the much needed neurotransmitter, serotonin. Their hyper-arousal makes it difficult for them to access the logical regions of the brain to think, process, delay gratification, or solve problems. Their neurology is wired to fight, flee, and freeze, and so they are reactive, aggressive, and unpredictable.   Their ongoing emotional dysregulation interferes with their cognitive, emotional, and social development.  They think concretely, don’t understand social cues, and have little insight into their own thoughts and feelings.

                An observer in the waiting room of our therapeutic center might see one child sitting quietly, withdrawn, and head down, while another child is bouncing from chair to chair, overturning cushions, and tearing pages out of books.  Many of the children in our waiting room have difficulty recognizing the personal space of others.  They invade privacy by asking personal questions of complete strangers, and they tease and pick on one another. The waiting room observer might see teenagers with ankle bracelets due to house arrest along with pierced body parts, tattoos, and black nail polish.  It’s probably difficult for most adults to view the pandemonium without judgments regarding the children or their parents.   Many of the children are brought in by foster or adoptive parents following removal from birth parents, and the parents themselves are angry, overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated. Teachers, like the one I contacted last week, say things to me like, “I don’t care what happened in his earlier life, he needs to learn his lesson and shape up.”

Society needs more education about trauma in order to better meet the needs of our most vulnerable and hurt citizens. Caregivers of traumatized youngsters also need support, as raising hurt children is a challenging task. For traumatized children to heal, they must learn that the world is now a safe place for them, with adults who care and accept them for who they are.  Unfortunately, the symptoms of traumatized children lead to confusion, anger, and frustration from the adults around them.  The judgments and rejection they see in the eyes of their parents, teachers, and neighbors reinforce their fears, skewed perceptions, and survival mechanisms.  As they mature into adulthood, their unhealed wounds lead to yet another generation of children who become traumatized by the adults who are supposed to protect them.

Lack of understanding of the behaviors and symptoms of traumatized children are obstacles to solving the problems of abuse and neglect.  In my work with hurt kids, I have to be mindful of my own judgments and frustrations.  I have to stay committed on a daily basis to connecting the dots between their current behaviors and the traumas that drive them.  I feel I owe it to them to give them my best self.    My dream is that knowledge of early trauma and its devastating effects can spread, so that the eyes of society will one day reflect a picture of hope and healing for these youngsters.



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