The past few days have been quite stressful. You see my 15 year old adopted son ran away. Nothing between us provoked it; at least nothing untoward. I rag at him daily to clean his room, do his chores...normal father-son interactions during turbulent adolescence. My son has experienced significant trauma bombs in his short life and him running away is a direct result of that unresolved trauma. Sadly for some more severely traumatized children and youth it takes more time for them to "mature" enough to begin facing and resolving their trauma bombs. Sometimes it requires additional crisis to move them along the pathway to recovery if they have become stuck in a rut on the side of the road. My son has been quite stuck in one place for many years though every known therapeutic intervention has been attempted, offered though summarily resisted and refused by him. Who knows, possibly this episode of self destructive behavior will allow his healing process to finally begin. I pray it is so.
My wife Rhonda and I adopted her second cousin when he was 7 years old. He came to our home as a kinship foster child when he was just 5 years old. Because of his young age he really had no memory of many of the bad things that had happened to him up to that point in his life. His older sister was the "keeper of the memories." Nevertheless, his behavior, his actions spoke volumes of the past trauma he had experienced. We knew he was a damaged child. I had seen the same things over and over again as a Child Protective Services Social Worker and Supervisor and working in other social services capacities since 1981. Pervasive neglect, chronic physical abuse, possible sexual abuse, exploitation and at minimum exposure to things no child should be exposed to being cared for by a meth addict.
At first his behavior was explosive, violent and unpredictable. Hardly a day passed without the call from his school reporting another "incident" had occurred. Sometimes minor, sometimes more severe. Because he was a child with above average intelligence it was difficult getting appropriate intervention and assistance from the school system. It took two years to have a formal Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Therapy for a child that young only provided a cloudy peek into what he was thinking or feeling. Therapeutic intervention for young children is their environment, their parents, the parenting practices used to guide, correct, discipline and instruct him. Nothing seemed to really work. No punishment, no reward, no incentive had any impact. He responded to his feelings instantaneously and even the most "normal" and non-threatening situation could trigger an inappropriate reaction. His brain had been molded and conditioned to interpret his world as threatening regardless of whether it was or not.
When it was all said and done only minimal positive change took place over time and realistically it was just the natural maturing process that brought it about. It had little to do with therapy. He had learned the right words to say to deflect the pressure to look at the "dark places" and the "ugly feelings" he experienced. He didn't want to go there. Any consequence, any corrective discomfort was less painful that the painful things he avoided facing...at any cost. Few things motivated him. Those things that did were usually short term and once that period of time had passed (he liked playing football) the motivation to rein in his behavior and negative outlook also passed. He couldn't look down the road to next season and how much better it would be if he maintained good grades and out of trouble before then. The next 5 minutes was as far as he could see down the road. Immediate gratification and the consequences be damned.
His psychological evaluation indicated that making transitions in life would be very difficult for him. He didn't cope with change well at all. We tried to help him through them, prepare them, start talking about them well in advance but usually it was wasted words and effort. Every "transition" to a new and different situation brought about "difficulties" and they changed all the time as he became older, faced greater expectations, had less boundaries and external controls than when he was a young child. Our society and particularly the schools progressively loosen external controls and crank up the need for self-directed "controls." Self discipline, responsibility, following rules and when they are broken there is no tolerance for "mistakes." Natural consequences may be logical and anticipated by most people but those who have experienced past trauma (trauma bombs) often cannot perceive such "natural consequence" situations "naturally." 1 + 1 = ??? To traumatized people, particularly children and adolescents, the answer is rarely "2" and is usually something else and they cannot understand why "2" and only "2" is the correct answer.
I don't know how many times I've heard people say, particularly prospective foster parents, say "All they (abused or neglected children) need is a lot of love and a good home." They are right that they need "a lot of love and a good home," but the "all" doesn't apply. Love and a good home is just the start. It's the foundation of the healing and without it healing cannot even begin. For some, it can bring about some dramatic, visible, immediate results. Some children blossom when nourished with love, good food, structure, and understanding correction. Those are the children with "flesh wounds" and are more in the category of what I call as adults "the walking wounded." The walking wounded are those people of any age who have experienced trauma but it's mild or moderate, non-chronic or pervasive. It's when the trauma has been repeated and has had time to "compound" the impact and the impact isn't accumulative but exponential. One trauma equals a single number depending upon the severity. One, five, ten, a hundred in magnitude. Without subsequent traumatic incidents the impact can begin to be dissipated, decreased over time. If not completely resolved the next trauma event multiplies what remains and so forth. Over time three mild trauma events that in and of themselves aren't of major concern...just normal life events, but in sequence over a short period of time or at sensitive developmental mile markers the mild inconsequential trauma bombs evolve into a moderate or severe level of trauma.
That's the problems when dealing with people who have unresolved trauma bombs in their life. The total impact is not always straightforward to understand. What externally looks "normal" isn't "normal" under the surface. Sometimes a hug is unwanted and hurts emotionally for those with trauma bombed pasts. Getting close, being loved, being cared for is uncomfortable and resisted. These types of "miscalculation" often results in failed and broken relationships, broken marriages, criminal behavior, self-medicating substance abuse, violence, pain and additional traumatic events. When there are two people with trauma bombs laying hidden beneath the surface and they surface, come in contact with each other, subsequent explosions can take place.
Because of trauma bombs what appears like "normal" isn't, but so often we respond and interpret them as "normal." The results are usually pretty ugly. So the question is how to recognize when what appears "normal" is not abnormal but "non-normal." Part of my training as a social worker involved examining my personal prejudices. To deal with others in a balanced "non-prejudicial" manner you first have to recognize what your personal prejudices are and the actively work to counter them...to eliminate them in your actions and inter-actions. That is why doing your own "trauma/life timeline" is so important. Once you can "see" yourself with "eyes that can see" instead of through colored glasses you can better understand the ways you interpret and respond to life's varied situations. When in a relationship with someone else you have to gradually discover that other person's "trauma/life timeline" and determine whether or not your interactions fall into a relatively "normal" framework or in a "non-normal" framework...two traumatically impacted personalities functioning as a result of those trauma bombs in their past.
You must understand yourself and neutralize and decontaminate your personal trauma bombs before you can ever begin to understand and help someone you love who also has a traumatic past. The thing is we all have experienced some level of trauma in our lives, no matter how inconsequential and relatively "normal." Yet even a very mile trauma bombed past of a person can interact with other people in explosive ways. You ever come across someone and from the very first moment just feel repulsed. You just don't like them and upon further examination you really don't know why. Chances are it's related to their trauma bomb past or present that has triggered such a reaction in you. If you understand your own history (trauma/life timeline) it probably won't take much exploration to find out the root cause of such a negative reaction (feeling) about someone else. The same goes conversely. Some people you are just attracted to and you may or may not know why. On the surface attraction can be simply physiological...hormonal, when it involves the opposite sex. But when such "sexual impulses" aren't the obvious reason, then there could very well be a common "history" working beneath the surface. It can work the same in the "dislike" situation. Often someone "just like me" will evoke a negative "feeling" if the similarities are "too close." Just a few things in common but not too many can be very attractive. Yet the saying goes..."opposites attract," and they do when the deficits of one person complement the other persons strengths...resulting in "a good match."
I had such a symbiotic relationship with my now deceased spouse Rhonda. She was street smart and I was book smart. Together there was nothing we couldn't handle or figure out together. Consequently there were many ways we were different but overall the differences were manageable. To successfully live with someone else you must first be able to successfully "live with yourself." That's the far too frequent the rub. Trauma Bombs unresolved makes it difficult for us to live comfortably with ourselves and if we can't live comfortably with ourselves how can we expect to even begin to live comfortably...or to help someone else with whom we have a loving relationship, be it a child, spouse, partner, friend, or more distant relative.
Start by working through your own trauma bombs, work on writing down your trauma/lifeline, your personal story and then you can, begin your healing process and better cope with others and possibly help them work through their trauma bombed past.
My son is home now, safe, back in school, remorseful and trying to begin to figure out what just happened in his life. Sure it is scary...for both of us. That's what trauma bombs do...keep us scared until we take the scared out of them and replace it with understanding, insight, a different spin and perspective and hope.
Link to accompanying YouTube video commentary: