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Imagine what it would be like to become the healthiest person you could be.....
This is the inherent right of each individual but when lingering emotional trauma from our childhood blocks the normal developmental process, we get struck. As each of us strives to become the healthiest person we possibly can, we will have to come face-to-face with emotional fears that may be the result of traumatic childhoods. Although that journey may be paved with the paid of unresolved grief and...
Imagine what it would be like to become the healthiest person you could be.....
This is the inherent right of each individual but when lingering emotional trauma from our childhood blocks the normal developmental process, we get struck. As each of us strives to become the healthiest person we possibly can, we will have to come face-to-face with emotional fears that may be the result of traumatic childhoods. Although that journey may be paved with the paid of unresolved grief and unrecognized loss, this book will serve as the map to guide you and help you rediscover your discarded self...
...the best self you were always meant to be.
The Discarded Self,
An Overview Of Children Of Trauma
Later In 1984
this safe place i call
home of my mother:
what does it offer?
calamity was its fuel for heat.
sorrow fed our mouths for dinner.
and you, mother, i fear you still.
this place i call
home of my mother:
i say i no longer live here
but i find pieces of my heart
in each room.
must i claim them?
they are half eaten, half rotten.
i walk through the rooms.
step by step. piece by piece.
i place the pieces in a sack.
and you, mother, i fear you still.
this safe place i called
home of my mother:
i have my own home.
you have your sorrows. i have my pieces.
and you, mother, i fear you less.
Standing still in the same spot for the past five minutes, the little girl remained perfectly erect. Her small-boned hands were clutched behind her. Her tiny leotard covered legs were crossed at the ankles and held tightly together. The pressed white pinafore was without a wrinkle.
She spoke a little louder, "Mommy please, I need to go to the bathroom." Four, perhaps five years old, the little girl appeared much older. As she stood near her engrossed parents in Chicago's O'Hare airport, Sandy was too patient, too sedate for a normal child of her age.
Fighting in strained intense tones, her parents seemed oblivious to the child's persistent yet patient requests. Another few minutes passed. Slowly she reached up and touched her mother's arm. "Mommy, please!" The mother grabbed the little girl by her shoulders, "Well go then. Sandy, will you grow up? Can't you see I'm busy talking to your father? Go!"
While her parents resumed muffled retaliations above the noise of the airport hubbub, Sandy backed away. Pulling herself even more erect, she started walking hesitantly down the crowded hall. A curious marionette in a well-starched pinafore, Sandy paused now and again. Trying her best to look grown up, she mostly appeared frightened, confused, alone.
Months and miles away, another child was playing quietly under the chairs of his mother's table in an airport cafeteria. Jimmy appeared to be about four. His very young mother painted and repainted her face, sipping cocktails with abrupt anxious movements. Every few minutes she would jump up and run to the door, nervously checking for the arrival of the plane for which she was so impatiently waiting.
Jimmy darted after her, "Wait, Mommy, wait!" She would turn, put one hand on her hip and point a threatening finger in his direction.
"Get back there! Do you want to ruin this relationship, too? Damn it, Jimmy, leave me alone!" Glaring at his mother, he retreated to the table and began taking sugar packets out of a bowl and tossing them one by one on the floor. For this behavior, Jimmy would get soundly shaken, slapped on the backside and banished to his stainless steel shelter. "Get back under there, you brat. You're just like your drunken old man! Stay out of the way!"
During one such interaction, the mother pushed her drink at him, trying to be careful that no one witnessed the offering. He drank some and made a face. She force fed him some more, "Look at you, you like it, don't you? You're going to be a drunk just like that no good dad of yours!"
Dragging him out from under the table, his mom combed his hair with abrupt rough motions. Finished with his grooming, she stared at Jimmy with blank harshness and shoved him back under the table prison. He gazed up at his mom while she retouched her lipstick one more time.
In another place and time four-year-old Danny stood, eyes opened wide, marvelled by the abundance of a department store toy section. The Yupik Eskimo child was running his hand gently across the face of a blond, white-skinned doll. His parents stood close by, silent, stoic, glancing at him frequently, nervously. Their eyes seemed to suggest, perhaps urge Danny to remember that gentle touches were enough.
Across the aisle from Danny, a little white boy sat cross-legged on the floor. Zooming a truck in circles around himself, the boy filled the air with imitations of diesel engines and airhorns.
After a time, the little boy's father, obviously frustrated from looking for his child, appeared at the end of the aisle, "Damn it, son!" he yelled, "Get up off that floor; you look like a drunk, squattin' Indian!"
Danny's parents looked away immediately. Their eyes fell to the floor as they moved slowly toward their boy. There was a sense of urgency in still downcast glances. With hushed briskness, Danny's parents whisked him out of the store. Not a word was spoken.
Sandy, Jimmy and Danny are children of trauma. Throughout their developmental years they faced "cumulative traumas" such as those described above. (Kahn, 1963). They might never remember what really happened, yet the buried feelings and emotional reactions to these experiences may direct the course of their lives. As adults these individuals may suffer from panic attacks, bulimia, chronic depression, antisocial behavior, compulsive behavioral problems and addictions. The therapeutic map and other necessary support required to work through, resolve and master the traumas may never be offered. They might not regain the discarded self that was lost in a childhood over which they had no control.
Adult children of trauma often become locked in unhealthy and addictive relationships. These patterns reflect repeated survival attempts to master old pain. They may choose not to have children, fearing they would be unhealthy parents. If they do have offspring, these parents may not bond to their children or may become overenmeshed, overprotective or permissive. They may attempt to reparent themselves (through their children) in order to heal their own wounds.
Some children of trauma may eventually become leaders of corporations, doctors, psychologists, artists or poets. The pain and sensitivity of past experiences may help them create gifts to the world, yet many will treat themselves with disdain and neglect through workaholism, extreme perfectionism or chronic illness.
Better choices are possible. As adults these children can learn that they are survivors of trauma and look at themselves with feelings of respect for that survival. They can learn to believe in themselves enough to risk a long journey back through the pain. This process will allow them to reclaim their discarded self and free them to live, bond and break the generational cycle of pain. Sandy, Jimmy and Danny may risk allowing themselves to feel the initial pain of being welcomed to the planet earth, a welcoming that children of trauma may ever have experienced.
Sandy, before the age of five, is already learning that it is not all right to have needs and feelings. She is an "unwelcomed visitor" who must take care of herself, control her needs and stay out of the way. In order to be accepted (allowed to stay), she must prematurely function like an adult. She is learning to focus on the needs of those around her and obliterate her most important developmental task: identity formation.
At the airport she was eventually taken to the bathroom by a well-meaning adult who was afraid for her safety. Sandy may have learned through this experience that strangers are more trustworthy than those responsible for her care. This lesson could have frightening implications for her if she continues to suffer the neglect experienced on this particular day.
Jimmy, on the other hand, is learning that he is more powerful than life. This lesson creates a tremendous lack of security and a need to act out more, seeking the outside controls which make him feel safe. He is learning that he can externalize his mother's anxiety and depression. Jimmy is also learning the blueprint for his life. He is bad, causes nothing but trouble and is destined to become an alcoholic. He has already tasted the liquid which may later sedate inner feelings of terror, pain and loneliness.
Danny's lessons may lead to the internalization of cultural self-hate. He is hearing that there is something wrong with him because of the color of his skin and the ways of his culture. The dolls he loves are not like him in color or features. Powerful figures on the family television set or officials in the school system are also different from him. He is already hearing a statistic which he may come to believe, that Indians are alcoholics (and doomed to die at earlier ages).
If his parents remain speechless about their own past pain and internalized shame, Danny will learn to hide his feelings to protect them from further distress. Ethnically or racially different childen are subject to a sense of shame that can turn into self-hate and intense isolation. If the parents have adapted to their own shame through learned helplessness, the child's world becomes divided. Ensuing conflicts in loyalties create an outside and inside reality that deeply injures a sense of self.
When we look at Sandy and Jimmy, we do not see behavior typical of happy-go-lucky, four-year-old children who have in only two years' time become comfortable with learning the "I." Nor do they within that knowledge begin really exploring their new world of self, asking hundreds of curious questions, showing expansiveness, energy and experimenting with language, cause and effect, imagination and tall tales.
Normal four-year-olds are busy learning to sort out the real from make-believe, questioning for the first time, "Where did I come from?" and "What happens when I die?" We see the curious child between four and five involving a parent for the first time in serious discussions of life. In both Sandy and Jimmy, however, we see children focused on parental behavior rather than their own developing language and curiosity. We do not see the shocked response of a traumatized child: frenzied, frozen, panicked and regressed. Instead, Sandy and Jimmy exhibit behaviors which indicate experience with trauma. They already show signs of massive defenses established through repeated traumas which make them less sensitive to emotional neglect and abuse. This can be likened to behavior adopted by soldiers experiencing war.
"Soldiers can be hardened in training by the battle of experience; while certain physiological expressions of anxiety were considered normal in what was once called a soldier's baptism by fire, the seasoned soldier may take similar situations in stride."
No Trust, No Development
The energy a child expends to protect the self from frequent trauma, however, is energy that cannot be expended in normal child development. Basic trust in the security and continuity of the emotional and physical world are key to the development of a sense of positive identity and self-esteem.
Masterson (1985) talks about several elements that are present in a healthy real self. Among them are, "The ability to experience emotions deeply with liveliness, joy, vigor, excitement and spontaneity. . . the capacity to identify one's unique wishes and to use autonomous initiative and assertion to express them in reality . . . the capacity to limit, minimize and soothe painful emotions . . . the capacity to express the self fully in close relationships with minimal anxiety about abandonment or engulfment."
These capacities are sorely missing in adults who experienced regular unresolved traumas in their families. Or because of their parents' own traumatic childhoods, these children were not helped to resolve the traumas present in losses or in their ventures out into the world of school and community.
A child learns the trust and security of the world (through the unconditional love and nurturing of parents) in the initial weeks and months of life. This love extends beyond being fed and clothed. It is the warmth of the mother's body when being fed, the loving remarks and smiles of the parent when diapers are changed. Also involved is the early protective shield of the parents' holding the child. A sense of security develops also in the knowledge gained through repetition that although the parents may not always be right there every minute, they will return. In later months and years, while the child is building a sense of self, the parent's acknowledgment, praise, confidence, support, encouragement and comforting will be internalized by the child. This helps the child develop her or his own ability to express confidence in self, to self-praise for accomplishments, to self-encourage when confused and to self-soothe when disappointed. The parent's consistency and limits will be internalized as the child's self-discipline and self-control. The parent's positive attention to, and encouragement for the unique person the child is becoming, is positively internalized in the creation of the child's own sense of self and heightened self-esteem.
Children Of Trauma Of Children Of Trauma
Children of trauma are most frequently parented by individuals who experienced trauma that was never resolved. A child's first steps, when met with encouragement, cause the child to make greater steps forward. Children who experience disdain and judgment will be critical of themselves. If the parent shows anxiety and fear, the child will be unsure and tenuous or will take inordinate risks as a defense against fear. If the child's needs are rejected (as in the case of Sandy), the child will learn to show disdain for her own needs. This child leaps into expected responsibility of the pseudo-adult world with little or no foundation in reality. Typecast into a role and unable to live outside the world of the theater this child excels at memorizing lines and remains dependent on the cues of various "directors."
Some children, like Jimmy, learn that normal childlike existence is a threat to the security of others. They learn that normal emotions are like weapons that can actually endanger the foundations of their parents' lives. With this internalized sense of self, they are equipped only to live out their identities as "bad apples," to become the alcoholic or"slut" their mother sees in them, abuse themselves for the contempt the parent shows or to turn the parent's anger on themselves, being afraid that to express it would create danger to others and to their sense of security. They may keep testing their environment to finally secure punishment for overpowering "crimes," committed before the age of five.
Children live out what they see reflected in their parents' eyes or in the eyes of others in their community. If what is reflected is the disdain and unacceptability of their developing self, that self will be discarded in order to meet the image in the reflective mirror of their world. The wall of internal defenses keeps their true self in check, a wall created by stimuli too great for an unprepared ego to endure. Children of trauma live in environments that stimulate emotions and simultaneously block their release. When the defensive wall is relaxed, as is the case of a soldier with no more wars, a workaholic without a job or a caretaker without someone to care for, what is seen is the original panic of the frightened child.
In her book, The Ego and the Mechanism of Defense: Vol. II, (1966), Anna Freud writes:
"That the ego's defensive system acts as a protection against traumatization becomes evident whenever an individual is prevented from using a habitual defense in a situation that represents a specific danger for him. This can be seen most clearly in cases of denial or of phobic avoidance . . . The phobic individual, who is forced to meet the object of her/his anxiety instead of avoiding it, is thereby forced undefended into a traumatic situation and breaks down in panic; so does the individual who has warded off a painful reality fact by denial (impending blindness, cancer, threatening loss of a loved one) and is forced to take cognizance of it against her/his own intentions."
The Trauma Of Minorities
The trauma faced by Danny is of a much subtler type, but the accumulation of such incidents over time can be equally as devastating to a child's self-concept. The trauma in this case is the continual erosion of self-esteem faced by ethnic and cultural minorities in a world where they are seen as lesser than others. The belief may develop early in these children's lives that their families lack power in the majority culture. Cultural and ethnic self-hate leads to a sense, deep in the core of the self, that "there is nothing I can do to make up for the lacking in myself and the awareness that I am deeply and profoundly unlovable."
This shame is frequently multigenerational. The child not only receives continual cues of his lack of power and lovability from the real world outside the family but may also feel it deeply from his parents whenever they have contact with the broader community. Although the child may pick up subtle cues from toys, books and television, he becomes most acutely aware of these differences when leaving the safety of home and entering school. He may be taunted, teased or merely recognize that the family left in the morning is very different than people encountered in the larger world.
As noted by child development expert Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society, 1950:
"For a child of immigrant parents there is often acute conflict between the desire to look up to his parents and the shame he feels for the exposure of their different ways and their uncertainty and unseemliness in a strange land. Estranged from both cultures he may manifest his own insecurity about where he belongs by over-zealousness in taking on the ways of the school and the neighborhood alien to his elders, and by impatience with their foreignness and slowness of adaption."
The exposure itself would not be as devastating to the child's developing sense of self if it were possible to discuss and explore feelings regarding early wounds with parents. Frequently, however, as may or may not be the case with Danny, the child picks up cues from the parents that they are themselves in pain and perhaps hurting and suffering more than he can ever presume to suffer. This feeling leads to the child's assuming a protective role reversal and a sense that nothing will ever make a difference. In many cases the child actually becomes a pseudo-adult ambassador for the parents to the strange and hostile world felt to exist outside the home. If a child feels that the parents suffer from irresolvable wounds to their own self-esteem, the child may also develop survival guilt. This guilt is likely to inhibit the child from experiencing a sense of success or joy beyond that of the parents. In contrast, some children tend to "identify with the aggressor" and develop a loathing for those like themselves as a defense against their own sense of powerlessness and self-loathing.
The deeply felt experience of self-hate is not limited to cultural or ethnic minority children. This process takes place for any child that feels the powerlessness of his differences in a broader world that cannot be expressed or validated at home.
A young child, for instance, with a perceptual handicap such as dyslexia, may feel the pressure from a school that does not understand the handicap. The child may be considered lazy, unmotivated or just one more behavior problem by teachers. Unaware or uninformed parents may see the child's behavior in the same light, not understanding the perceptual problem over which the child has no control. Without competent perceptual screening and testing, the child and parents may never understand why and how she is different. Instead, the child internalizes the beliefs of the adults and peers and feels that she is just "lazy" and "bad." This frequently leads to more behavioral problems, lack of motivation and severe depression. This sense of self-loathing can also be passed down the family tree and across generations.
Paula was aware from an early age that her father was different from other parents. Whenever they were out in public, he would become painfully shy and would sit far in the back at any public gathering. He was frequently depressed at home or would become enraged with her or her mother with little provocation, slamming doors and yelling, "You two feel better than everyone else. Well, I have news for you, I'm just as good as you are!"
Paula became very protective of her father and would feel disdain for those she felt were hurting him. When she was five, she realized that he could not read and quite innocently expressed this fact to her peers in the neighborhood. She was punished for this transgression by her mother, told that she had hurt her father deeply and was ordered to never again let anyone know her father could not read.
Paula became extremely compulsive about her own schoolwork and felt ashamed when she got less than an A. She studied constantly, never entering into the more social world of school and play. Her first love was a boy who she met in her junior year at college. He was an intellectual, a "bookworm" like herself, and their time together was spent sipping cokes after studying in the library. Their relationship broke up when he received a higher grade than she did on a final exam.
"I never want to see you again," she screamed. "You have always felt you were better than me; now you have your proof."
Paula's father delighted in her school successes, and he even began showing a sense of pride (that had always been lacking) whenever she brought home an honor. He would never, however, accompany her mother to her graduation ceremonies. Paula would become even more determined to try harder in school so that he would come when she received the next degree.
I saw Paula shortly after she had received her Doctor of Education degree. She had been hired as an assistant professor at a prestigious college in the East but had to leave the job because of severe panic attacks she experienced whenever she was required to stand up in front of her classroom.
All children experience traumatic events of one kind or another before reaching the age of 18. This fact is central in our treatment of children and adults who have experienced the effects of unresolved traumas in their lives. It is a fact we must also understand in order to appreciate and recognize healthy family interactions. Parents and extended family members cannot fully protect their children from traumatic events. They can, however, protect them from the damaging effects of unresolved trauma on the child's developing self-esteem.
For example, some children raised in alcoholic families do not show the typically damaging effects on self-esteem. If at least one adult family member was not in denial, the child's experience of trauma can be validated and her emotional reactions can be expressed. These two factors are essential if the child is to be assisted in mastering the traumatic events.
Children of trauma are individuals who were raised in families where denial is the primary defense used to cope with emotional pain. A child's sense of self is damaged less from the actual experience of the trauma than it is by the reactions of the significant adults in the child's life.
Sandler (1967) has observed that,
"There is strong evidence that many children recover from truly traumatic experiences with little or no residual damage to their personalities. The degree of environmental support that the child receives is important here. What would seem to be crucial in deciding the outcome of a traumatic experience is not so much the experience itself, as the posttraumatic state of ego strain that it engenders in the child's adaption to that state."
Many survivors of sexual abuse, for instance, have shared that the failure to be believed when reporting abuse to an adult support person was far more devastating than the abuse itself. Likewise, children who have experienced the loss of a sibling in their childhood and had their feelings ignored because "they were only kids" show a devastated sense of identity. Many felt that they not only lost their brother or sister but also their parents because Mom and Dad failed to acknowledge the loss or grieve themselves. In some families the deceased sibling is never talked about again. Often failure to process the grief of a child's death results in divorce or emotional withdrawal of the parents from each other and their remaining children.
Many of the adults I have treated who lost siblings early in their childhood experience numerous problems: poor ability to connect with others, extreme dissociation, constant suicidal ideation and intense survival guilt. In some cases, because of their age at the time they experienced sibling death, or because of early rivalry and normal ambivalence, they have unconsciously believed that they killed the child. For others, the perceived lack of parental concern over the death resulted in the remaining child's internalized belief that the parents actually killed the brother or sister.
Many individuals have suffered extreme survival guilt, never allowing themselves to truly experience life past the time of their sibling's death. These adults unconsciously believe that they should have died instead. They also feel that if they let their lives go on and detach from the constant memory of the dead sibling, no one will have cared. The parents' seeming lack of concern for the dead child is proof that the child never mattered to anyone and neither do they. Clinging to the dead child is the only way some children can validate their right to exist.
The four components necessary for the resolution of any trauma are: validation of the event, a supportive adult, validation of emotions and time. (Middelton-Moz and Dwinell, 1987).
In families where communication is open and healthy, where parents are not suffering from unresolved trauma and grief, validation, support, time and modeling are present.
For instance, if Danny's parents can talk to him after leaving the department store, model feelings for him, allow him expression and support, talk openly about the issues of prejudice and offer him skills to deal with the world outside his home, rather than deny their feelings and the prejudices that exist in others, he will not suffer injury to his self-esteem. It will be through their own denial, unresolved pain and inability to be emotionally present for him that his growing identity will be affected.
Connie is a very energetic five-year-old. Her drawings reflect a great deal of creativity and spontaneity. Occasionally, during shopping trips or while walking in the park with her dad, she will say, "Boy, Daddy, I really miss Mommy sometimes. I wish she were here with us." Rather than ignoring the subject or feeling the child's statement is an attack on his ability as an emotional caretaker, he stops and puts his arm around her.
"I know, it must hurt a lot sometimes. I miss Mommy, too. She used to come here with us. Are your remembering those times?" Connie's eyes fill with tears; her daddy's do also. They hug for a minute; then Connie grabs her dad's hand and they continue walking.
A little over a year ago Connie's mother died. She was hit by a car as she and her husband were walking back to their car after a late night out at a restaurant. Jim, Connie's dad, went immediately into shock. Even in his numb state, however, his first concern was his children. He called a friend for support and discussed how to tell them. The next morning after the children were awake, he gathered them together and told them directly and honestly that their mother had died the night before. Jim had his brother there as a support for himself. They all cried together frequently during the next few days.
Jim involved his children in the funeral arrangements. They took part fully in the grieving process. Jim sought out counseling and emotional support to deal with his feelings of loss and the traumatic event that caused his wife's death. He dealt with his rage at the driver who had killed her, as well as his own guilt. He asked himself over and over, what could he have done to prevent her death? He struggled endlessly with his own sense of helplessness. While working through his own grief, however, he remained as emotionally and physically available for his children as he could. He dealt with Connie's early night terror and her recurrent fear every time he would leave the house. He talked about his own loss and processed theirs with them.
About eight months after the death, Connie woke up in the middle of the night; she was crying and awakened her dad, "Daddy, I wish I could say happy birthday to Mommy. I wish Mommy were here. I miss her." After they had talked for a long time, they agreed to talk about it as a family the next day. Connie went back to sleep.
On his wife's birthday Jim and his children had a picnic in the backyard. They bought a huge bouquet of helium filled balloons and tied notes to them that said, "Happy birthday, Mommy." After they had eaten, they let the balloons go. The bright colors of the balloons stood out against the summer sky as they floated upwards and beyond while the children cried and sang "Happy Birthday."
For Connie and her brother the devastating effects of trauma on their personality development will not be present. Connie will not experience panic attacks at night whenever a loved one leaves the house nor compulsively overprotect her own children or need to emotionally detach from them. She will not have to leave relationships before she gets left or work her grief out in other relationships. Children who suffer unresolved trauma frequently act out in their adult lives the traumas they could not master in childhood fantasy and play. Because there was validation of her mother's death, validation of her feelings, her dad's modeling of appropriate grief, someone there for her and time, Connie will have mastered the trauma.
1996. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Children Of Trauma by Jane Middelton-Moz. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.
|1.||The Discarded Self, An Overview Of Children Of Trauma||1|
|2.||Where I Stop And You Begin: Developing Emotional Boundaries||19|
|3.||Panic Attacks: A Window To The Frightened Child||71|
|4.||Relationships: Attempts At Mastery||89|
|5.||Dimestores, Bakeries, Businesses And Bingo||121|
|6.||You And Me Against Me: The Unfair Odds Of Self-Hate||137|
|7.||From Legacy To Choice||155|
Posted August 2, 2002
At the time this book was written (1989)I used to haunt the self-help section of the local bookstore. I purchased and read countless dozens (literally dozens) of books, none of which answered the question of what was wrong with me. I was suicidal, had panic attacks and severe depression. Then I found the answer: my own childhood trauma. Children of Trauma made so much sense. I felt as though the author understood what I had been through personally. I followed the book's suggestions, and began to revisit my own childhood trauma, the effects of which had carried on into my adult life. This process of self-discovery has led to dramatic results. The depression has lifted, the debilitating panic is gone, and I'm no longer suicidal. For me, this book was a miracle. I highly recommend it.
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