Working with Traumatized Children:
A Handbook for Healing

Book excerpt

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Chapter 8: When Formerly Traumatized Adults
Work with Traumatized Children

Many people who grow up to advocate for traumatized youngsters have experienced childhood trauma themselves. It is a natural way to give personal suffering meaning while helping to address a societal problem. Adult survivors of childhood trauma bring certain advantages to their jobs because they understand how devastating a traumatic experience can be for young people. They have credibility when it comes to "having been there and done that," especially when they share hope about successful recovery. Yet, while other child advocates who've not experienced trauma may struggle to build credibility, adult childhood trauma survivors struggle with separating their personal experiences from those of their young clients. This can be one of the largest challenges for adult advocates who've lived through earlier trauma.

The Struggle

Helping traumatized children can be challenging. The nature of the work demands that we demonstrate patience, steadfastness, empathy, flexibility, willingness to try new methodologies, humor, knowledge, spirituality, insight, and optimism. Actually, many of these traits reflect adult resilience characteristics. Adults who've experienced and survived trauma well enough to advocate for children are, for the most part, resilient. Yet, advocating for youngsters as an adult survivor of childhood trauma carries its own set of challenges. Many adult survivors are somewhat naive when they first begin their advocacy work because they are unaware of how much their earlier personal experiences can be projected onto their young clients or work environment. In addition, their reasons for entering the child advocacy field may be somewhat confused with an unconscious desire to come to terms with or reconcile their own traumatic experiences.

The Author's Story


Istarted working with young people as a teenager, first as a playground supervisor and later as a camp counselor. I enjoyed these jobs and after completing college decided to work with high school students through the YWCA where I organized teenage clubs and counseled youth. But I often felt inadequately prepared to deal with some of the problems I was asked to resolve and thought completing a graduate degree in counseling would build my skills.

I have to confess that I was pretty ignorant about child welfare issues and overly confident after leaving graduate school. After becoming licensed as a mental health professional, I was challenged in my first job at a residential treatment center because I became impatient with some of my young clients when they couldn't "get it together." At times, I had difficulty controlling my frustration when they naturally reacted to their trauma triggers, and I felt inadequate to help them when they continued to repeat their destructive behaviors again after they'd been counseled. I felt the same kind of impatience with their families as well. Little did I know that working with traumatized children can also involve addressing generations of traumatized individuals.

For almost eight years I struggled with my frustrations while I interacted with certain clients. I related well to young, quirky, out-of-the-box thinkers. But I was resistant to working with angrier and more aggressive young trauma survivors. I wanted them to "get over it" and recognize their strengths. And I allowed myself to hold resentments when clients didn't acknowledge my efforts to help. I kept my feelings quiet, thinking that good social workers or counselors should be able to work with everyone. To sum things up, I was denying my humanness and taking things far too personally.

By then I began to experience a series of losses in my personal life. First, it was a divorce. Then dear friends died. At the same time the agency where I worked went through political turmoil. As my challenges mounted I grew sad, and my sadness developed into situational depression, forcing me to seek help. (Most graduate students are required to participate in some self-exploratory counseling, but after I'd finished postgraduate training years earlier I felt adequately prepared to tackle life. Like other newly minted professionals I erroneously thought that my cake had been baked, so to speak, and that I didn't need further self-exploration.)

One day, while I was in one of my personal therapy sessions, I was surprised when I remembered a traumatic childhood incident. This memory was one of several subsequent memories I recalled from my childhood--traumatic incidents I vaguely remembered, never acknowledged, grieved, nor integrated into my adult life. Like many adults who had acquired posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in childhood, I avoided recognizing or acknowledging my condition until my life had metaphorically slammed into a brick wall. Instead, I had dealt with my PTSD by becoming a perfectionist and obsessing about the small stuff.

Over time, I grew to understand that much of my former frustration with clients had to do with my own earlier trauma. Growing up, I had developed layers of self-protective armor and projected it onto my clients as an adult through my unrealistic expectations and irrational disappointments. As I grieved my childhood experience, I also began to recognize that my clients' experiences were all different. It finally sank in that each person's healing is unique and should be honored as its own special journey, without the influence of my demands. As I continued to integrate my childhood experience, I explored and addressed my desire to be perfect. In dealing with my own vulnerabilities I worked to accept the humanness in others. Finally, I integrated the fact that the reason I'd first chosen my profession was because of my unconscious need to reconcile my own childhood trauma.

The Struggle Reveals Itself in Various Ways

Mentioned earlier in [chapter 8], formerly traumatized child advocates bring credibility to their work because they can be great spokespeople for the rights of children. This is one way to give their earlier suffering meaning. They have insight into the challenges faced by traumatized children. Yet, when workers haven't dealt with their unresolved issues they can demonstrate somewhat marginal and inappropriate behaviors, including a heightened sense of righteous indignation.

Righteous Indignation

One way adult survivors of childhood trauma demonstrate righteous indignation is by exhibiting an inappropriate bias against parents within the dependency court system. It can also be exhibited by hypervigilance at work, to the point of wearing oneself out. Annette was such a person.

Annette's Quest to Save Other Children from Pain

Annette, 58, was a child dependency case supervisor who paid a price for her hypervigilance when she first became a social worker. Because she did not know why she had been placed in an orphanage at age 6, she felt compelled to work on changing the communication gaps in the child welfare system as an adult. She was driven by the idea that children should not fall through the cracks, which had been her experience. She wanted everyone to know that children placed in out-of-home care often feel invisible and powerless. She wanted to spare all the children she worked with from pain. Consequently, she worked 70 hours a week and acquired a few medical diagnoses, such as hypertension and an ulcer. Over time, her self-imposed work schedule took a toll and forced her to learn about self-care--something adult survivors of trauma sometimes have trouble understanding. She struggles now to work only 40 hours a week but recognizes that it is more effective than exhausting herself.

Compulsive Caregiving

Because their circumstances sometimes compel traumatized children to power through their experiences, they can grow into adulthood and continue the habit in spite of the warning signs to slow down. Annette powered through until her medical conditions forced her to slow down and consider that her old habits needed to be reevaluated. While Annette worked to reevaluate her righteous advocacy, James found it difficult to control his compulsive caregiving.

James's Compulsive Caregiving

James and his three younger sisters were raised by an alcoholic mother. His father was unknown, but he'd been told that his dad could have been any number of his mother's boyfriends. Nevertheless, James assumed a paternal role with his siblings as they grew up because, while his mother earned a living, she was unable to provide nurturing and emotional support for her children.

Every Friday James made sure his mother paid him enough money to cover household expenses before she walked to the neighborhood bar. With these funds James scraped together enough to keep the family clothed and fed. When his mother brought men home after her nights out James was careful to keep the bedroom doors locked, particularly after an incident when one of the men wandered into his bed. He was an extremely creative child and grew to be a creative adult.

James was caring and compassionate and always fought for the underdog. He earned a scholarship to a community college and began his child welfare career by working in a residential treatment facility while going to night school. As James earned more college credits he also gained responsibility at work. Eventually he earned a graduate degree as well as a promotion to assistant director.

There is an old adage about a doctor who overlooks his own family's health because he is busy treating everyone else. This was James's situation. He took such good care of others that he forgot to care for himself or his own family. If one of his young clients needed his time and attention, he was there. If one of James's younger sisters needed money, he gave freely. And if he was asked to give up a weekend for his agency, he was available.

James's compulsive caregiving hurt his marriage and took the focus away from his wife and children. He had never learned how to have fun and had seldom practiced saying "no." He may even have been afraid of what would happen if he slowed down long enough to really examine his childhood. Compulsive caregiving had always made him feel good about himself and took his mind off his troubles.

James continued his obsessive caregiving pattern until his wife threatened him with divorce. When they entered couples counseling James couldn't imagine how it would change the quality of his life, but it did. With practice, he learned to set limits such as turning off his cell phone, and he ultimately reconnected with his family. In addition, James gave himself the gift of working one-on-one with a therapist so he could reprocess his early trauma.

Armored Defenses

While many adults traumatized in childhood become overly caregiving, some become less tolerant and more withholding of their empathy. Scott W. Allen, staff psychologist with the Miami-Dade Police Department in Miami, Florida, has counseled police officers with PTSD. Allen commented that law enforcement professionals traumatized in childhood often have problems dealing with their emotions. These individuals deflect their feelings by making cynical remarks or spending as little time as possible with traumatized victims. "'Pull yourself together' is a common attitude," Allen explained, "because exposure to distraught individuals can trigger anxiety in these police officers." And while they chose their careers because of their desire to help others, their armored defenses are different from other trauma survivors such as James.

Unregulated Emotions

Many of the issues traumatized adults grappled with as children continue to be issues for them as untreated traumatized adults. This is true for those individuals who had difficulty regulating their emotions as children. Untreated adult survivors of childhood trauma can carry their unregulated emotions, which can include temper outbursts, into the workplace. In addition, their childhood circumstances can exaggerate their feelings about having "the market cornered" on understanding a traumatized child's experience. Cindy was one of these people.

Cindy's Inability to Regulate Her Emotions

Cindy was sexually molested by a family member when she was a young child. Later, as a result of her traumatic experience, she became an active member of her adult survivor of incest group and a leader in her community around the issue of child sexual exploitation.

Working as a child abuse investigator, Cindy was known on the job to be somewhat impatient during her investigations, at times bordering on inappropriate. Her behavior was called into question by her supervisor following an incident where she had called an alleged perpetrator an unflattering name in front of coworkers. Cindy's angry response to her superior was to flatly state that her childhood experience gave her the credibility to intuitively identify sexual predators and call them names.

Inability to Identify and Share Feelings

Cindy was unable to keep her comments in check. And yet other adults traumatized in childhood have a different problem. They cannot identify their feelings at all, let alone talk about them. The inability to identify one's feelings as well as give voice to them can continue into adulthood when earlier traumatized helpers struggle to assert themselves in the workplace.

For example, the inability to be assertive can be a problem for trauma survivors when they are working as case managers with angry parents on parent-child reunification plans. It can be a struggle for them to be clear about case plan goals and outcomes when they are blamed for removing children from their homes. Some formerly traumatized adults report that they fold when their clients express anger or complain to supervisors. They simply don't know how to defend themselves against verbal attacks.

In addition, formerly traumatized helpers can become passive-aggressive as a way to indirectly express disapproval or disagreement. Jack was a supervisor who translated his inability to express himself through passive-aggressive behavior with his student teachers.

Jack's Passive-Aggressive Supervision

Jack was traumatized at age 12 when his mother was murdered during a home robbery. At the time, talking about his mom's death with his dad created tension between them. And within six months his father married a coworker. Jack liked his stepmother but never felt close to her. They were like "two ships passing in the night," he remarked. Over time his relationship with both his stepmother and father grew politely distant.

When Jack became a high school teacher he taught learning disabled students. He was protective of them when other less sensitive teachers attempted to discipline them. Jack was especially protective when he was assigned to supervise student teachers; Jack would take over the teaching task for the student teacher rather than risk provoking his students. Jack avoided potential conflict with his student teachers at all costs. But his passive-aggressive approach to supervision made him unpopular with his supervisees and didn't give his students a chance to work through issues with other adults.

Jack needed to learn that appropriately addressing unpleasant topics was not going to estrange him from others and that his students could learn to handle direction from other teachers. Jack also needed to revise his supervision style so his student teachers would learn from their mistakes.

Mistrusting and Suspicious

Jack was protective of his students to the point that he wasn't giving them opportunities to work through their own problems. But formerly traumatized adults can cross other boundaries when they suspect the worst from people due to acquired mistrust based in childhood trauma. For example, ethical boundaries can be breached when formerly traumatized helpers falsely accuse parents or other caregivers of traumatizing children when there is insufficient evidence, simply because they don't like certain caregiver traits or characteristics. Their suspicions could be based on personal reminders from their past.

Magical Thinking

Boundaries can also be crossed when untreated traumatized adults think in "magical" ways. For instance, utilizing fantasy often helps traumatized children safely disengage from their traumatic experiences and distance themselves from their overwhelming feelings. But when fantasy remains unchecked, even into adulthood, it can become magical thinking. Magical thinking reflects hopes, dreams, and wishes, but not reality.

One form of magical thinking is noticing only the positive qualities in others. When people perceive life through magical thinking lenses they reinforce their own avoidance tendencies. Magical thinking gets children through their experience but holds adults back from living authentic lives.

Child advocates who engage in magical thinking can unintentionally put children in harm's way because they think that parents have changed when all evidence indicates otherwise. Several years ago, I was dumbfounded when a sheriff's deputy reported he let a confessed child molester walk the streets after disclosing his sexual assaults, simply because the man promised to become a better Christian.


Other earlier traumatized helpers may constantly strive to be perfect. Some adult survivors reject the opinions of their colleagues and fail to listen to the expressed needs of their clients because they do not want to appear wrong or have to backtrack by taking corrective action, which may underscore their mistake or error. Their earlier trauma may be tied to punishment for making innocent mistakes in childhood. The desire to be perfect becomes an outgrowth of these types of experiences.

Examining Unresolved Issues Is Important

Anyone working on behalf of traumatized children can benefit from examining their unresolved childhood issues. If you were formerly traumatized in your childhood, take a moment to review this checklist [on page 27] to see if your advocacy work is currently being affected by your earlier experiences. Answering 'true' to a few or more of these questions may indicate that further self-examination will benefit you and your work.

Adult Survivors of Childhood Trauma Are Resilient

By and large formerly challenged adults are resilient, even when their unresolved issues present barriers. Mentioned earlier in this chapter, adult resilience attributes are present in many, if not most, survivors of earlier trauma. Even when helpers do not already exhibit the following resiliency list attributes they can adopt and practice them.

Coming to Terms with the Past

Coming to terms with our past, particularly when we've been traumatized in childhood, strengthens our ability to help traumatized children. When we deal with our own traumas we automatically remove personal burdens and barriers that interfere with helping others. We can live freely and participate fully in life, feeling gratified to leave our work at the end of the day.

Additional Resources

Frankl, V.E. (1984). Man's search for meaning. New York: Washington Square Press.

O'Gorman, P., & Diaz, P. (1988). Twelve steps to self-parenting. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health        Communications Inc.

Sedgwick, R. (1994). The wounded healer: Counter-transference from a Jungian perspective. New        York: Routledge.

Whitfield, C.L. (1985). Healing the child within. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

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