By definition looked after children who have been traumatised by neglect, abuse and/or abandonment have not received ‘good enough’ parenting prior to being accommodated; they are therefore likely to have parenting needs different from their non-traumatised peers. This, together with the emotional and behavioural difficulties they present makes the task of caring for them a very challenging one.
These challenges are likely to stretch the resources of even the most stable and caring families. Indeed, as David Conrad in his article on secondary trauma in foster care points out, “the expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.” (Rachel Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom) (Conrad 2004) Conrad emphasised that foster carers who parent traumatised children, and listen to their stories, are likely to feel their hurt. He adds that the empathy that allows them to do this is often the most important tool parenting figures have to help the children in their care; however the more empathic parenting figures are, the greater their risk for internalising the trauma of their children. This is compounded by several other factors. Parenting is essentially a 24/7 ‘job’ meaning that parental figures caring for traumatised children may have insufficient recovery time to help them process their children’s disclosures and acting out behaviours. This is important because trauma reactions are only reduced when we can process and integrate the experience and interpret its meaning.
Archer and Gordon in their book, Reparenting the Child Who Hurts (Archer and Gordon 2013) emphasise that carers need to recognise that children’s behaviour is the ‘language’ they use to convey their sense of themselves and their world. They also emphasise that it takes time and patience to be able to see beyond the behaviour to the underlying meaning. Carers who lack recovery time are likely to struggle to have the physical and psychological space to manage this. This is exemplified in the quote at the beginning of this article where the mother is working hard to empathise with her son while, at the same time, trying to prepared dinner and worrying about her own and her son’s physical safety.
It is difficult to achieve adulthood without experiencing some personal trauma and loss. Children’s traumas can reactivate carers’ personal trauma experiences; even trauma experiences that were felt to be resolved may be trigged in caring for a traumatised child. For Conrad, this adds to the likelihood that parenting figures will develop signs of ‘secondary trauma’.
While Conrad’s contentions are undoubtedly true the authors of this article feel that the impact of living with traumatised children is far more complex than this; that parenting figures are often not only at risk from secondary trauma but also from primary and vicarious trauma symptoms. In order to explore this we need to consider the nature of traumatic incidents and the definition of these three concepts.