How does trauma impact the family?

A fact sheet from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

All families experience trauma differently. Some factors such as the children’s age or the family’s culture or ethnicity may influence how the family copes and recovers. After traumatic experiences, family members often show signs of resilience. For some families, however, the stress and burden cause them to feel alone, overwhelmed, and less able to maintain vital family functions. Research demonstrates that trauma impacts all levels of the family:

■ Families that “come together” after traumatic experiences can strengthen bonds and hasten recovery. Families dealing with high stress, limited resources, and multiple trauma exposures often find their coping resources depleted. Their efforts to plan or problem solve are not effective, resulting in ongoing crises and discord.

■ Children, adolescents, and adult family members can experience mild, moderate, or severe posttraumatic stress symptoms. After traumatic exposure, some people grow stronger and develop a new appreciation for life. Others may struggle with continuing trauma-related problems that disrupt functioning in many areas of their lives.

■ Extended family relationships can offer sustaining resources in the form of family rituals and traditions, emotional support, and care giving. Some families who have had significant trauma across generations may experience current problems in functioning, and they risk transmitting the effects of trauma to the next generation.

■ Parent-child relationships have a central role in parents’ and children’s adjustment after trauma exposure. Protective, nurturing, and effective parental responses are positively associated with reduced symptoms in children. At the same time, parental stress, isolation, and burden can make parents less emotionally available to their children and less able to help them recover from trauma.

■ Adult intimate relationships can be a source of strength in coping with a traumatic experience. However, many intimate partners struggle with communication and have difficulty expressing emotion or maintaining intimacy, which make them less available to each other and increases the risk of separation, conflict, or interpersonal violence.

■ Sibling relationships that are close and supportive can offer a buffer against the negative effect of trauma, but siblings who feel disconnected or unprotected can have high conflict. Siblings not directly exposed to trauma can suffer secondary or vicarious traumatic stress; these symptoms mirror posttraumatic stress and interfere with functioning at home or school.

Download the complete fact sheet at http://TraumaToolbox.com and learn more practical tools on how to have a trauma-informed home. Contact Ron Huxley today to set up a therapy session or organize a seminar for your agency or event at rehuxley@gmail.com / 805-709-2023. You can click on the schedule a session link now on the home page if you live in the San Luis Obispo, Ca. or Santa Barbara, Ca. area.

The Summertime Parent

While most children were anxiously waiting for the school year to end, Jonathan was simply anxious. Although most boys loved traveling across the country during vacation, Jonathan dreaded the annual trek to see his father. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his father or enjoy being with him. It was the children from his father’s new marriage that he didn’t like. He felt like he was no longer his father’s son and that his dad loved them more than him. To top it off, he wouldn’t get to see his friends or his mother for almost ten weeks.


Jonathan’s parents had divorced, and his father had moved to another state. He only saw his father during Christmas and summer vacations. His father would send birthday cards and occasional letters, and with the invention of email, he could type off a quick note anytime he or his dad wanted. But that didn’t make the situation easier for him. In some ways, it only made a hard situation harder.

It was no summer picnic for Jonathan’s father either. Instead of feeling excitement about seeing his son, he felt anger and resentment that was often channeled toward his ex-wife whom he blamed for the custody arrangements. “I never realized how hard divorce could be,” exclaimed Jonathan’s father, “and getting remarried has only made it worse. Now I am stuck in the middle of two sets of frustrated families.”

Wounds of Divorce
Regardless of the reasons, divorce hurts! Any separation between two connected people will cause emotional wounds when pulled apart. Like any wound, the traumatized area must be cleaned and cared for if healing is going to be possible. The more dirt slung between divorced parents, through verbal and physical fights or nasty legal battles, the more infection in the relationship between parent and child will develop.


Jonathan’s father moved across the country because of a great job offer…or at least, that was what he told everyone. The job was great, but the real reason was that he couldn’t get along with Jonathan’s mother and just needed to leave and start over again. Unfortunately, that left Jonathan behind. “In retrospect, I would have stayed, regardless of the situation,” admits Jonathan’s father. “At the time, the hurt was too much to stand. I didn’t want the divorce, and his mother’s new boyfriend was just salt in the wound. Rather than continue to argue and waste money on lawyers, I decided to leave.”


Parents who have a long-distance relationship must address the wounds of divorce. Cleaning out a wound is painful but necessary. Similarly, letting go of old hurts and memories is important for healing and growth. Jonathan relates that his first summer with his dad in his new home was fun: “We went out to eat, the movies, miniature golf, and then my dad started pumping me for information on my mom and her boyfriend, when I just wanted to be with my dad.”

When parents do not deal with their own issues, children suffer all over again and their wounds are not allowed to heal. “Summer time parents” need to take care of themselves throughout the entire year so that they can enjoy the time with their children. Parents can care for themselves by consulting with a professional, developing a strong network of friends, exercising regularly and eating right.

Reassurances and Permissions
Major changes are frightening to young children. The loss of a parent creates fears of loss of food and shelter, being forgotten, attacked, punished, or unloved. While this might seem irrational to a parent, it is a real concern for the child. Children need reassurances that these things will continue to
be in their lives and, most importantly, that they are loved. Don’t make promises that things will go back to the way they were or be just as good. That is one promise parents can’t deliver, and it breaks down a child’s trust. Simply offer a verbal hug of hopefulness that the future will be secure and safe. In addition to reassurance, children often need permission to let go of the guilt that attaches itself to living with the “school-year” parent and visiting the summer parent. Both parents need to tell the child that it is okay that he/she are going. Be honest about missing the child but save the wailing and cloth-ripping for another time and place.

Permission giving helps to untangle the loyalty binds that children get caught in after divorce. Don’t ask a lot of questions about the other parent and his/her life back home. If the child wants to talk, fine, but don’t start an investigation and definitely keep your opinion of the other parents life to
yourself. Children feel they are disloyal to one parent by staying with and loving another parent. This problem is rooted in the concrete thinking styles of school-aged children. It is a developmental issue that can’t be removed and everyone must learn to adjust.

Creative Communication
The key to being a successful summer parent is to have regular communication during the other months of the year. Because it is difficult for the parent who moves away to watch the child grow up, predictable and consistent communication in the form of phone calls, letters, postcards, e-mails, photos, and tape recordings can help. There are many social media tools and apps that can also be used.

Too many parents spend their time on the phone or in letters mourning the time they are apart or how much they miss the child. This re-traumatizes the child and makes the parent look pathetic. If it has to be said, say it one time and move on. Focus the discourse on what is going on in your and your child’s life. Make plans for the upcoming visit and discuss emotional issues important to the child. Stay away from morbid meanderings.

Make the communications short and newsworthy. A one page letter talking about how the dog ate your favorite shoe or describing a beautiful sunset will make a better connection between parent and child than a long, boring letter that lists every detail of the week. E-mail is also a great way to communicate as the medium itself is geared toward brief, informal notes, and the instantaneous nature of the format makes frequent communication practical.

Try alternative mediums. If the parent or the child is not a “letter writer,” try using a tape recording. Buy a compact recorder or use your phone and walk around for a day recording various activities and thoughts. Capture
the sounds of the dog eating your shoe or describe the sunset as you look out the back window. Buy a Polaroid camera and take pictures of the new house and neighborhood and send those (by e-mail or snail mail) to the child. Alternative forms of communication can add a little more color and life to dry words on paper and bring the child and parent closer together emotionally.

If you like creative ideas, do a project or play a game across the time zones. Read a sport article or watch a favorite television program and then discuss it later on the phone or by e-mail. Keep separate journals that are exchanged during the visits. Create an online web page with both parent and child as co-webmasters. Play a game of checkers (with two sets) and give the moves to each other during your communications.

Make up a “sharing box” where you put mementos and little treasures for the other person to look at and discuss when together. Start a garden or acquire an aquarium and get advice on what to plant and how to care for the fish from the other person. Creative ideas, such as these, foster family solidarity despite time and place. It makes the relationship feel real and alive and that is important to parent and child.

School Connections
Summer parents feel out of touch when it comes to the child’s life at school. Request to be put on the school’s mailing list or give the child’s teacher an e-mail address to update the distant parent on activities and progress. Many schools and teachers have web sites set up so parents can view their child’s itinerary and grades. Knowing what is going on at the child’s school allows parents to ask intelligent questions about upcoming field trips and school projects. The child will also feel that the parent cares about him or her. Parents can make similar connections with doctors, therapists, and coaches.
Jonathan and his father still miss each other, but their relationship has blossomed despite the distance. They are routing for the same baseball team and are working on a go-cart that Jonathan and his new siblings will race during the summer at a track near the father’s house. “I started taking
pictures of the engine as I dismantled it and I scan and send them out each week by e-mail to Jonathan. He told me last night that he has started a scrapbook with all the pictures in them. When he gets here, the go-cart should be all put together, and we can paint it together,” explains his father.

Geography doesn’t have to separate parents and children emotionally. Summer-time parents can keep the relationship alive during the school year so that they look forward to being together and can pick up where they left off. “Jonathan has excitement in his voice when we talk about our time together.That is the biggest gift I could ever receive!”

Do you wish you were more resilient?

Take a moment to think about a happy moment in your life. It could have been a moment that occurred recently or a long time ago.

Perhaps it was when you or a family member graduated or when you got a promotion to the job of your dreams or when you asked someone out on a date and they said “yes” or when a new child is born.

What feelings did you have when this moment occurred? What is it joy, excitement, or surprise? How positive did you feel about yourself and your future? Probably great, right?

Now think about a tough situation that happened to you? What feelings did you experience then and how well did you feel about yourself and your future? Obviously, not as great as the positive experiences.

We all have good times and bad times in our lives but some people seem to be able to “bounce back” from tough times better than others. Some people can still feel optimistic about their future despite bad times.

We would call these people “resilient.” It is a desired quality to survive all the ups and downs in life. Those who have it, have an advantage at home, work, and life. If you don’t have a lot, then you feel all the pain of living in a much more dramatic way. Do you want more resiliency?

How do you get it? Is it purely genetics? Can you learn skills to improve it? Is it all chance, a luck of the draw?

Resilience is an interactive process between the characteristics of the person and the environment in which they live. Genetics does make a difference but they are not the only factor. They can make us more sensitive to negative experiences, like child maltreatment, parental neglect, the witness of violence, poverty, job loss, illness, etc. Our particular temperaments make us more or less vulnerable to the stress and trauma. Our bodily chemistry manages the expression of stress responses which affects our viewpoints about our circumstances and self-image. 

This is just one variable in the science of resilience. The other, equally important factor, is the quality of our relationships. Stress can be managed when we have loving, caring, healthy people in our lives to help us through it. Research demonstrates that even if there is only one person who can support us we are more likely to cope with difficult events.

For example, if a child turns to the loving neighbor whenever dad is drunk and angry or mom and dad fight or mom too depressed to make dinner, then that child will have a greater capacity to “bounce back.” We call this type of person, a “cookie person” who offers warm, fresh cookies to eat when times are hard. Did you or do you have a “cookie person” that you can turn to when overwhelmed?

Unfortunately, not everyone has a “cookie person” in their lives. When a natural helper is not available people have to search our professional helpers, like therapists, teachers, and school counselors to help them. These professionals can offer a listening ear as well as teach skills to manage anger, improve parenting, manage finances, and navigate through community resources. This type of support balances out the negative situations to create more positive outcomes.

The most powerful truth, when it comes to building resilience, is that we are social beings that need other people. We thrive in healthy relationships. If we didn’t get this in childhood, we can still develop it in later life. Attachment researchers call this later development “earned security.”

A Zen saying that illustrates resiliency that comes from warm, social interactions is…

“If there is light in the soul, there is beauty in the person. If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house. If there is harmony in the house, then there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world!”

Can one person make a difference in the world? Yes. Are you that one person to one other person? Who can you turn to in your natural environment or who can you contact to help you professionally and create more resiliency in your life?

Get more resiliency tools in the Trauma Toolbox at http://FamilyHealerSchool.com

Need a speaker or consultant to help your organization become trauma-informed? Contact Ron Huxley today at rehuxley@gmail.com

 

H.U.R.T. = Healing “Un’s” and Releasing Trauma

A key element of the healing strategies for individuals who have experienced trauma is to “ReWriting Our Narratives.”  These are the stories that we believe about ourselves as a result of the negative, hurt-full things in our life. But these stories are not all true even if they feel so, so, true. They are also not the end of the story. We can be the authors of our own lives and choose the plot lines of your future story. 

Children and Trauma

Children are “ego-centric”. These means that they believe the world revolves around them. Therefore, when bad things happen, they believe it is their fault. This is due to an immature nervous system and executive functioning skills that are supposed to help them see things rationally. They are not rational creatures. Consequently, if something bad happens traumatized children believe that they are bad! This is a false narrative based on painful/shameful memories.

This is a hallmark of trauma-informed care that is revolutionizing the programs and services across the nation. We are learning to shift our paradigms from asking “what is wrong with a person?” to “what happened to a person?” This allows us to concentrate on the story. But this must go deeper. We have to ask the healing questions: “where does it hurt?”

We can use the acronym for HURT to help us explore our stories:

H.U.R.T. = Healing Un’s and Releasing Trauma

HURT children carry around a lot of Un’s (a prefix meaning “not”): Unworthy, unwanted, unloved, unsafe, unstable, unkind, untrustworthy, etc”.

What UN’s do you or your child believe?

1.

2.

We could also ask ourselves this question. What UN’s do I believe about myself. Everyone goes through some level of trauma. The challenges and hassles of everyday life can be quite severe. Many caregivers suffer compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma as a result of working/living with a traumatized child.

Fortunately, healing is possible for children and adults. We can look at where the HURT is and find strategies that change our life stories with positive, resilient endings!

Get more help from Ron Huxley by scheduling a session today or taking one of an online Trauma-Informed training at http://FamilyHealerSchool.com

Co-Parenting Isn’t Working? Try Parallel Parenting.

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Many divorced parents are frustrated about their co-parenting arrangements. No matter what they try to do to work things with their ex, all of their efforts end up in conflict. Co-parenting feels more like game where there are no winners.

In these situations, the best advice is “no contact is no conflict”. If it wasn’t for the shared children they would have no contact and then there would be no problem but since that isn’t the case how do you co-parent with no contact? The answer is Parallel Parenting!

The situation reminds me of small children who are learning to share. Before they develop the skills to play cooperatively, they engage in parallel play. Both types of play look alike but when you watch more closely you realize that they are in the same room, with similar toys, playing next to one another but they are not really playing together. They are quite disengaged. Eventually, development will help create the skills needed for cooperative play. In the case of high-conflict divorce, parents may have to let go of the more mature cooperative parenting and shift to parallel parenting.

Parallel parenting purposefully disengages from the conflictual partner and concentrates on connection with the child. It may involve one parent focusing on dealing with the child’s school and the other on their soccer games. While both parents need to agree on major decisions, they will differ on daily logistics about bedtime routines, acceptable television watching, choice of baby sisters, and church attendance. When the daily heat can be turned down between parents, it makes the bigger decisions easier to navigate.

Parallel parenting protects the children. Research clearly demonstrates that high-conflict divorce results in higher rates of behavioral disturbances and mental illness later in life. More commonly, when a child tries to have a positive relationship with both parents who do not have a positive relationship with each other, they experience a “loyalty bind.” When the child is with parent A, he misses parent B. The child might even feel that he is being disloyal to parent B when he is with parent A and vice versa. This is easily intensified by parents who talk negatively about the other parent in front of the child. It can also occur when one parent acts like a victim causing the child to worry about them. Another way is leaning on your child for moral support and treating the child like the co-parent instead of a child.

It is a delicate balance to parallel parent and break down loyalty binds. A parents natural inclination is to protect their child and if they believe the other parent is harmful then…

The truth is that both parents are important to the child. To really protect them and find some sanity in the relationship, try using alternative methods to communication than face-to-face, like email or a notebook. Keep the wording factual about the child’s health, sleeping patterns, school events, weekend schedules, medical care, etc. Request separate school notices or records. Avoid showing up at the same events without prior knowledge. When you do end up at the same event, make a huge effort to demonstrate working together. You might actually find you can do it all the time!

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