Vicarious trauma arises in people who hear about traumatic incidents. It may arise in families where one parent experiences the bulk of the child’s traumatic re-enactment. Often this role is filled by the mother figure in the family. This may be partly because mothers are more likely to be stay at home parents and therefore bear the brunt of the parenting. However, equally important is the nature of parent/child relationships. Children are born to mothers not fathers and their first intimate relationship (pre-birth) is therefore with their mother. After birth this symbiotic relationship continues; in their first few months babies look more towards their mother than anyone else (Fahlberg 2008). Father figures become increasingly important as babies develop an interest in their wider world as they grow and develop into toddlerhood. Traumatised children may therefore have intrinsic feelings that mothers should have protected them from harm and abandonment regardless of the perpetrator of their traumatic experiences. Children may therefore need to resolve their relationship with new mother figures before being able to focus on their relationship with new father figures. Fathers watching difficulties emerging in the mother/child relationship and seeing their previously loving and caring wife/partner becoming increasingly angry and frustrated are at risk of developing vicarious trauma. This is likely to place increased stress on families.
Ways of managing vicarious trauma can include denial or withdrawal. Denial may be more pertinent when a child acts out their distress in challenging behaviours when fathers are not present; acting out a ‘good child’ role when, typically, fathers return from work. Withdrawal may be seen in fathers spending increasing periods of time at work, as is the situation in our quote. While both are understandable the result is likely to be a deterioration in family harmony.
Birth children living with a traumatised sibling may suffer vicarious trauma. Birth children who were part of the adoption assessment by supporting their parents’ plans may feel guilt about the stress and pressure they see in their parents. They may feel anger at their sibling’s behaviour but feel guilt about this because they know what a difficult time their sibling had pre-placement. They may feel they can’t express their feelings because they don’t want to put additional pressure on parents.
Vicarious trauma may be particularly relevant for professionals working with traumatised children and their families. It is impossible to hear about trauma without it having an impact and the impact is most likely to be felt by professionals who are empathetic and caring and who have had life experiences which reflect the experiences of the families they are supporting. In these circumstances it might be tempting to blame parenting figures for difficulties in the parent/child relationship rather than focus on the complex nature of the child’s traumatic re-enactment of early experiences. This may be intensified for workers who were involved in the removal of children from birth families and/or placement in the new family. Feelings of guilt about potential placement breakdown might be displaced onto blaming of parental figures.
Residential staff are also prone to suffering vicarious trauma especially if they truly recognise the level of trauma suffered by the children they are caring for; i.e. if they recognise not only what children experienced but also what it did to them. ‘Burn out’ may be a potent sign of vicarious trauma.