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Monday, April 17, 2017

How One Person Can Make a Difference in a Traumatized Child's Life

One person can make a difference in an emotionally traumatized child's life (see my article: Overcoming Emotional Trauma and Developing Resilience).  More about this later in this article.

How Even One Person Can Make a Difference in a Traumatized Child's Life

First some background:

The ACE Study
A landmark study that was conducted in 1998, called the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study found that the more types of emotional trauma a person experienced, the more likely it is that they  will develop social, behavioral, and emotional problems and the adult onset of chronic medical problems.

These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include:
  • direct emotional, physical and sexual abuse
  • a mother being treated violently
  • a family member with substance abuse or mental illness
  • parental separation and divorce
  • a house member incarcerated
  • emotional and physical neglect
Some specialists also include experiencing racism or witnessing violence, which I believe are also very important categories.

At around the same time that of the ACE study, Harvard researchers and pediatricians were conducting research on toxic stress.

They discovered that repeated and continuous exposure of toxic stress can have a negative impact on a child's brain development.  Their findings led them to question whether childhood trauma could be prevented or it's impact could be reduced.

How One Person Can Make a Difference in a Traumatized Child's Life

As a psychotherapist, who specializes in helping clients to overcome emotional trauma, I've worked with many clients who have experienced both shock trauma and developmental trauma.

I have found that it is often the case that, even where there was emotional, physical and sexual abuse or neglect, adults, who experienced trauma as children, can often name at least one person in their childhood who made a difference in their life.

How One Person Can Make a Difference in a Traumatized Child's Life

These often include relatives outside the immediate family, teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, family friends, therapists and others who provided emotional support that helped to mitigate the emotional trauma they were experiencing as children.

Even when clients come to therapy and they can't immediately think of someone in their life who made a difference, over time, while working in therapy, they often remember people that they haven't thought of in a long time and realize how important those people were to their emotional survival.

The following is a fictionalized vignette, which is a composite based on many different cases with no identifying information, illustrates these points:

Mike came to therapy after many years of experiencing very little joy in his life.

How One Person Can Make a Difference in a Traumatized Child's Life

He was married and gainfully employed, and he was able to function in his daily life.  But he always felt "there's something missing."  Mike felt an emptiness in his internal world.

When his therapist explored his family history, it became evident that, as an only child with emotionally distant parents, he was lonely and emotionally neglected (see my article: Looking at Your Childhood Trauma History From an Adult Perspective and Overcoming the Trauma of Parental Alienation).

How One Person Can Make a Difference in a Traumatized Child's Life

His parents, who were both focused on their professional careers, didn't plan to have children.

At a young age, Mike learned from his parents that he was "a mistake" (see my article: Growing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated).  Even though his parents joked about this, Mike felt emotionally wounded by it and he sensed the truth behind their jokes:  They didn't want him.

Mike was often left in the care of a full time nanny, who was efficient, but cold and emotionally withholding (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?)

As he explored his feelings about himself, he realized that he felt like an unlovable person (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

Mike's therapist prepared Mike to do EMDR Therapy to help Mike overcome the trauma he experienced as a child which resulted in his feeling unlovable (see my article: How Does EMDR Therapy Work?).

As part of EMDR therapy preparation, EMDR therapists often ask clients to remember people in their lives, either past or present, who were nurturing, protective or wise figures in their life (see my article: Developing Coping Strategies and Resources Before Beginning Trauma Processing in Therapy).

When his therapist asked Mike about people in his life who were emotionally supportive of him when he was growing up, Mike couldn't think of anyone from the past or present.  Not even his wife--they were together, but they were emotionally estranged.

How Even One Person Can Make a Difference in a Traumatized Person's Life

As mentioned earlier, his parents were cold and withholding, and Mike had no siblings.  He and his parents also had very little contact with extended family, so there were no relatives that Mike could think of from his childhood who were nurturing.

During the preparation phase of EMDR, clients can identify any emotionally supportive people--whether they are "real" (people that they've known) or people they don't know but whom they imagine are nurturing, including people from a movie or TV programs, historical figure, characters from a book, and so on.

The important aspect of this part of the work is for clients to be able to have internal access to an emotionally supportive figure that they can imagine while they're doing the trauma work.  This helps them to sense emotional support, especially during the therapy work.  This, of course, would be in addition to the emotional support from the therapist.

When there has been emotional neglect or abuse, clients often have a hard time coming up with anyone from their life or someone imagined.

There can be such a pervasive feeling of being "unlovable" that, even when there actually were people who were supportive, these clients often don't have immediate access to those memories because they feel so unlovable and undeserving of love and nurturance.

After thinking about it for a while, Mike couldn't think of anyone from his life, so he chose a person from a program that he used to watch as a child, Mister Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

Initially, Mike said he felt "silly" imagining Mister Rogers being there with him, but he understood the importance of re-experiencing his traumatic memories while sensing the presence of a nurturing figure, so he imagined Mister Rogers sitting next to him.

At first, it felt contrived to Mike, but as he continued to do it, he was surprised that he could actually feel the love and support of this kind person that he used to watch on TV.

As an emblematic memory of his feeling unlovable, the memory that Mike chose to work on was being told by his mother that he was "a mistake."

Even as he recalled his mother's words and how she laughed, as if she were making a joke, Mike felt profound waves of sadness and shame.

But, when the sadness and shame felt overwhelming, he was able to temporarily shift his attention away from the memory to imagining the emotional comfort of Mister Rogers.   At that point, he really understood the importance of the EMDR preparation work and using nurturing figures.

Several weeks into processing this memory, Mike suddenly remembered Mr. Blake, who had been like a Mister Rogers to him when he was a child.

Remembering Mr. Blake was part of the memory reconsolidating aspect of EMDR therapy. It helped Mike to access these positive memories about Mr. Blake.

How One Person, Like Mr. Blake, Can Make a Difference in a Traumatized Child's Life

Once he remembered Mr. Blake, Mike was surprised that he didn't think of Mr. Blake before when he and his therapist were working on the EMDR preparation phase.

Then, Mike remembered many of his talks with Mr. Blake and, for the first time in his life, Mike became fully aware of the positive effect that Mr. Blake had on his life.  It was like an epiphany to Mike.

Mike remembered that he did well in school, but he was very quiet and kept to himself.

He also remembered that the school bullies would pick on him, taunting and harassing him all the way home from school because they sensed his vulnerability.

One day, as Mike was leaving school, the same bullies followed him and began calling him names.

Just as one of the bullies started tugging on Mike's jacket, their teacher, Mr. Blake, who was nearby, confronted the bullies, reprimanded them and threatened them with disciplinary action if they ever bothered Mike again.  This frightened the bullies and they ran off.

Mr. Blake took Mike aside and told him that he could come to him at any time if the bullies bothered him again or if he needed to talk about anything else.  Mike was grateful, but he was too shy to say anything except "Thank you" in a near whisper.

During the next few years, Mr. Blake would often talk to Mike after school to find out how Mike was doing, even after Mike was no longer in his class.

Unlike his parents, Mr. Blake was kind and empathetic and took an interest in what Mike had to say, and  Mike began opening up more to him to tell him about his interests.  Mr. Blake listened and praised Mike and encouraged him to pursue his interests.

When Mike was in high school, he would sometimes drop by his old school to talk to Mr. Blake.  During those visits, Mr. Blake encouraged Mike to go to college, even though Mike was filled with self doubt about applying to college.

Based on Mike's hard work in high school and Mr. Blake's encouragement, Mike got into the college of his choice.  Mike maintained contact with Mr. Blake for a while, but the demands of college soon overtook Mike's time and they lost contact.

By the time Mike came to therapy many years later, he had initially forgotten about Mr. Blake but, as previously mentioned, EMDR therapy helped him to access these memories, even though he wasn't consciously aware of them.

When he was younger, he didn't really understand the difference Mr. Blake made for him.  But now that he was accessing these memories about Mr. Blake, Mike was able to look back at those times and realize how pivotal his interactions with Mr. Blake were in his life.

Mike talked to his therapist about how, without Mr. Blake, he probably wouldn't have developed some of his interests and he wouldn't have gone to college.  He knew his life would have been very different without this mentoring and guidance.

As Mike talked about this, he realized that Mr. Blake really cared about him, and Mike was emotionally moved by this.  He couldn't believe that he went through his life feeling that no one really cared about him when Mr. Blake took the time to talk to him and obviously cared.

From then on, Mike used his memory of Mr. Blake as a nurturing figure to continue to do the trauma work.

As he continued to do the work, Mike suddenly remembered other people, who were kind and nurturing to him in small ways but, until then, Mike had forgotten all about them.

Mike also realized that, despite the emotional neglect that he experienced as a child, he was also a resilient person and he overcame many obstacles in his life from childhood through adulthood.  This really helped Mike to feel good about himself.

Working Through Early Childhood Trauma as an Adult 

Over time, Mike was able to overcome his feelings of being unlovable and, as he did, he opened up more to his wife.  He discovered that, until then, his wife experienced him as emotionally detached and didn't know how to approach him.  She assumed that he didn't love her anymore.

She didn't realize what an emotional rut he had been in for such a long time until he processed his childhood trauma and began coming out of his rut. As Mike felt more alive, he was able to rekindle his relationship with her.

Even in situations where children are abused or neglected, one person's can make a positive difference in a child's life by being emotionally attuned and caring.

At the time, children might have little to no understanding of the impact that this person is making in their life.  But later on in life, when they look back, especially if they're in therapy, they often become aware of how important this person was to them for their emotional survival and well-being.

As time goes by, it's not unusual for some people to forget about these pivotal people in their lives, especially if there is significant emotional trauma.

EMDR therapy and other forms of experiential therapy, like Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis often help clients to have access to these memories, which can have a profound healing effect (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Can Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Getting Help in Therapy
As discovered in the ACE study and many years before that, going back to the time of Freud and the early days of psychoanalysis, childhood emotional neglect and abuse can have an adverse impact on adults' emotional and physical well-being with the adult often developing chronic physical ailments.

These detrimental effects usually carry over into adulthood.  But many adults, who feel anxious, depressed, emotionally numb or who have chronic ailments don't realize that what they're feeling is the result of their earlier childhood experiences.

They also don't realize that they can be helped in therapy to overcome these problems.

If you're feeling unhappy with yourself and your life, you're not alone.

You can be helped to overcome your problems with the help of a skilled mental health professional (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

The first step is making a phone call to set up a consultation.

While it might be the hardest step in the process, it can lead to positive changes in your life (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

One of my specialties is helping clients to overcome psychological trauma, and I have helped many clients to overcome trauma to live fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

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