As stated above, a traumatic incident is defined as an ‘emotional shock following a stressful event’ and ‘results from events outside normal human experience which overwhelm usual coping mechanisms’. Traumatic incidents, and traumatisation, can be subdivided into primary trauma, secondary trauma, vicarious trauma and trans-generational trauma. People susceptible to primary trauma are usually present when the traumatic incident occurs; secondary trauma is possible when people witness or hear about the aftermath of a traumatic incident; vicarious trauma is a concern for people who hear about traumatic incidents; and trans-generational trauma is a term sometimes used to describe the traumatic symptomatology displayed by the descendants of trauma survivors.
Trans-generational or intergenerational trauma is important when we consider the histories of looked after children. Birth parents may have developed a trauma model of parenting as a result of being subject to abuse themselves as babies and children (Ney 1988). This trauma model of parenting means that, despite efforts to parent their children in a safe and caring way, parents may not have the ‘Internal Working Model’ (Bowlby 1969) of parenting that helps them respond to their children in safe and non-abusive way. There are further implications. The wider family network may not have been a protective factor for abused and neglected children. Since most abuse happens within families and that the grandparents of ‘looked after’ children may have been implicated in their parents’ abuse experiences as children, we have to be open to the possibility that care by wider family members may have replicated a child’s experiences in their immediate family. This is likely to have reinforced the message that the world is not a safe place and that children cannot depend on adults to have their needs met. For example, over 90% of children who were subject to sexual abuse were abused by someone they know (NSPCC statistics 2013).
Bessel van der Kolk defines people who are traumatised from those who once had something unpleasant happen to them, in terms of a difficulty for the former with past/present differentiation (Herman, 1992; van der Kolk, 1989 & 1996). For the traumatised individual some aspect of the trauma is experienced as a here and now reality. This is important when considering the impact of living with a traumatised child.
Traumatised children bring their neuro-biological brain patterns with them into any new family. This, alongside the impact of mirror neuron firing means that, in a very real sense, traumatised children can interpret benign actions of parenting figures as potentially abusive ones. For example, a parent may respond, appropriately, to a child’s request for sweets just before dinner with a refusal. The parent is doing this with good intentions; i.e. to encourage healthy and nutritious eating. Children who have suffered early neglect may interpret their parents actions as demonstrating a lack of meeting basic needs and be flooded with a feeling of hunger that replicates early experiences of being a baby lying in a cot and wondering if mummy is ever going to come and feed them; i.e. even when they are being offered safe and loving care traumatised children can continue to experience trauma as an ongoing here and now reality for many years; as primary trauma. Thus, as exemplified in the son’s reaction to receiving his school report, minor reminders of early trauma can catapult children into a major trauma reaction in day to day interactions in safe and caring families.