5. The impact of primary trauma for parenting figures

The impact of living with a traumatised child is profound. Parenting figures regularly talk about having to manage lying, stealing, aggression and oppositional behaviour in their children, behaviours that, if they happened outside of family life and as a single incident, would be recognised as potentially traumatising. Parenting figures may be managing such behaviours on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. Day-to-day interactions may have the potential to develop into a traumatic event as can be seen from our quote.

The potentially traumatising effect of being lied to by one’s boss, having your purse stolen, or being subject to assault or road rage is recognisable and would be viewed as a primary trauma experience. Since these events as single experiences are recognised as potentially traumatic, parenting figures who experience such incidents on a regular basis and in the place (their family home) where they should feel safest and most secure are experiencing primary trauma as an ongoing, here and now reality.

We might expect the victim of primary trauma to be angry and would understand such a reaction; we might advise a change of job to ensure that the victim is not exposed to the perpetrator. These ‘restitutive solutions’ may not be available in families. Placement breakdown is the only way of ensuring a ‘job’ change but this is not something that is readily available to parenting figures who usually want, and are expected, to continue to parent the children in their care. An angry response is also not seen as an appropriate way to manage an angry, acting out child; parenting figures are expected to show empathy and understanding whatever the provocation. Indeed, had the mother in our quote responded to her son with anger the likely outcome would have been increased anger from the child and increased likelihood that this would escalate into violence.

Furthermore parenting figures may have to manage a child whose behaviour fluctuates between extreme control and extreme compliance; or a child who presents one personae to one carer and a different one to another carer or professional. These fluctuations which replicate the chaos often experienced by children who lived with drug or alcohol abusing parents can lead to parenting figures experiencing family life as one dominated by uncertainty and confusion. It may also lead to parenting figures feeling isolated and alone; a feeling that was experienced by the mother in our quote, a feeling which, in turn, reflected her son’s early primary trauma history of having nobody to turn to and no means of escape. The child’s primary trauma experiences are therefore replicated in parental experiences of primary trauma; having nobody to turn to and no means of escape are significant factors that change an ‘unpleasant experience’ into a traumatic one.

While the traumas suffered by parenting figures occur during adulthood; i.e. when their neuro-biological patterns are laid down, the impact of living with trauma in adulthood should not be under-estimated. Our bodies respond to a potentially traumatic event with an increase in the production of the cortisol that allows us to quickly react to danger and to ensure safety. However, exposure to trauma on a regular basis can mean that levels of cortisol production can become unhealthy (Stannard 2013). Exposure to regular trauma in adults, as in children, can also lead to changes in mirror neuron firing and to a trauma reaction being triggered by relatively minor stressors. The mother in our quote was responding to the possibility of her son’s aggression in a way that replicated her body’s response to previous aggressive outbursts; i.e. with an increase in heart rate and probably with an increase in cortisol production that would have had an impact whether or not her son, on this occasion, became aggressive.

The combination of these factors alongside having to manage children’s difficult behaviour and to continuing to provide care whatever the behavioural challenges means that, in a very real sense, parenting figures are likely to experience trauma as a here and now and continuing reality; i.e. as primary trauma.