6. Impact of secondary trauma

Secondary trauma is most likely to occur when people witness the aftermath of a traumatic incident. According to Dr Charles Figley, author of Compassion Fatigue, Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, (Figley 1995) secondary traumatic stress is ‘the natural consequent behaviours resulting from knowledge about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other. It is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatised or suffering person’. This confirms David Conrad’s view that people who work with, listen to and try and help traumatised children are at risk for internalising their children’s trauma, leading to secondary trauma. There are a number of reasons for this.

  1. Parenting is often seen as a core aspect of the way we, and others, define us. Parenting figures who use their  own experiences as children, the perception of other parents and how these beliefs are replicated in societal views of good parenting to determine what constitutes a ‘good parent’ may feel a sense of failure as when parenting a traumatised child. For example, parents who feel that ‘good’ parents should ensure that their children complete homework tasks, or have children who are polite and respectful to other people, especially adults are likely to have their perception of themselves challenged by an oppositional child who refuses to complete homework or who is rude and truculent. If parents’ deep feelings of failure is replicated in societal responses; for example by teachers putting pressure on carers to ensure that children hand their homework on time, or other parents who blame carers whose children disrupt class and playground activities these feelings can be intensified especially if the child presents as cooperative with and polite to others. In this situation parenting figures may begin to question their efficacy as parents, feelings that may (unwittingly) be intensified by statements from others that question the parent’s interpretation of their child’s difficulties. It’s very hard to maintain a feeling of efficacy as a parent if one’s child and other people convey messages that they are not managing well.
  2. Parenting figures undertake extensive training and assessment in the process of becoming parents. Inevitably this process conveys a feeling of success or failure which may be re-awakened when parenting figures struggle to parent the children in their care. Feelings of failure may well lead to a shame reaction (I’m a bad parent’) which makes it even harder for carers to feel good about themselves, acknowledge difficulties or seek support.
  3. Parenting figures need to recognise that a traumatised child’s behaviour might reflect their early experiences and the beliefs these engendered rather than the here and now (Archer & Gordon 2013). The often relentless and inexplicable nature of a child’s behavioural challenges can make this difficult to do.  Being in ‘fire-fighting mode’, with little or no time to reflect on the deeper meaning behind children’s difficulties, makes it hard to remember that children’s behaviour makes sense in light of their history. Lack of information about the child’s traumatic experiences and training on the impact of early trauma on a child’s neuro-biological development is likely to make remembering even harder.
  4. Caring for a child who challenges parental authority is exhausting and can turn parenting from a joyful and fulfilling task to one that is permeated with anger and frustration.  Anger and frustration, while a natural consequence of living with a child who challenges ones core sense of being, can lead to a parenting stance that reflects a ‘them’ and ‘us’ style instead of a reciprocal relationship. In this situation parents are more likely to see their children’s behaviour as a personal attack than an expression of the child’s traumatic re-enactment of their inner world, thus reducing the reciprocal relationship that is the key to helping children repair and the key to parenting figures being able to help them. In turn this can lead to foster carers experiencing ‘blocked care’. (Hughes & Baylin 2012)
  5. In addition, lack of understanding from friends and professionals who convey messages that ‘all children do that’ minimises parents’ concerns and increase feelings of isolation. It can also add to feelings of lack of self-worth; if they can’t successfully parent a child who is like other children they must be really terrible parents.
  6. The pervasive nature of children’s difficulties can lead parents to feel that there is no way out of their situation. Giving up (disruption) might be a possibility, but in reality this means relinquishing the parenting role rather than finding a way to improve it. In this environment hopelessness and helplessness is likely to prevail. This adds to the intensity of parents’ secondary trauma experience.

Secondary trauma may also be experienced by siblings. A ‘too good child’ who is living with an angry, acting out sibling may have started to attach to new parenting figures but live in fear that their placement might disrupt as a result of their sibling’s behaviour. This fear might preclude the ‘too good child’ from being able to show ‘all of themselves’ to their parenting figures and reduce their capacity for attachment. The child might feel that the pain of disruption will be lessened if they keep their feelings in check.

While not the subject of this article, the same factors may be true for professionals; the residential staff, social workers, therapists, teachers who are supporting traumatised children and their carers. We can all be impacted by trauma and it is those professionals who are at the forefront of caring and/or who have the greatest capacity for empathy that are most likely to suffer a secondary trauma reaction.