This past week I have been thinking about childhood trauma and the coping mechanisms we use to overcome or lessen the impact of this trauma. My attention was then drawn to what is commonly known as “latch-key kids” i.e. children living in single parent households (single and the breadwinner) or households where both parents need to work. The child is given a key to the house and comes home to an empty house after school and remains unsupervised (without a caregiver) until the parent(s) come home from work – usually late in the afternoon/early evening.
In South Africa, this is a common occurrence especially in the middle and more especially in the low income households. This is a sure formula for behavioural problems later. These children live a sad existence. Imagine, coming home from school to find no one home to love them or to advise them, supervise and help with homework or have a role model, is a sure way to have a lot of pent up rage later in life.
This child usually (I’m generalising here) has low self esteem, self hatred, feelings of abandonment which could lead to self destructive behaviour or overt hostility – a story of a “stolen childhood”. It is common for these children to have higher levels of anti-social behaviour (incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse etc). Two types of behaviour could stem from this: (1) chasing the high (adrenalin junkie) or (2) self-medicating (the hypochondriac or maybe even a “comfort” eater).
Description of traumatic experiences:
Some events could possibly only occur once (e.g. rape) but many other experiences could occur numerous times throughout childhood. Asked about their experiences, children would probably express it as “no big deal” but for many it would actually be very traumatic. I would also think that the effects of the trauma would depend on the coping mechanisms the child has learnt over the years, to minimise the trauma to him/herself.
Generally speaking, particularly here in South Africa, the most frequently described traumatic experience is sexual abuse, usually by a family member (i.e. father, brother or cousin). The sexual abuse could range from fondling to frequent and sadistic sexual penetration. In South Africa, the latest victim was four months old.
Another common traumatic experience is witnessing violence in the home (physical and psychological violence between the adults in the home is common). This usually occurs when one or both the adults are under the influence of alcohol or drugs (or in some cases, both). Some children are spanked or beaten with a belt when they misbehaved and others suffer psychological abuse which results in feelings of demoralisation and low self-esteem.
Abandonment by fathers is another common occurrence in South Africa (particularly in the low income households). Fathers abandon the mother while she is still pregnant and often never come back meaning that they never see the child or sometimes they come back a few months or a few years after the birth and try to reconnect with the mother in the hope of connecting with the child. The trauma caused to the child varies depending on the age of the child. In some instances, fathers only come back to establish a relationship with the child when they hear that the child has a successful career and earning good money or the child has an elevated status in society etc so the re-connection with the child is usually status or driven by money (selfish reasons) – not because they are interested in the child.
Sometimes the mother (and in extreme cases, both parents) abandons the home. Many children, especially in our lower income communities have to fend for themselves and often have to take responsibility for younger siblings as well when their parents leave them – sometimes for days, weeks, months or years at a time. Others are abandoned by their parents at a young age and never get the chance to form a relationship with them. These children often (in order to escape the social services system), take to the streets hence the reason why we have so many street children living on the streets in South Africa. They usually resort to begging on street corners for money to survive – sometimes get hooked on drugs and buy drugs instead of food, some are picked up by pimps who entice them with money and material goods to work for them and others resort to crime (theft) as a means of survival.
Although all these traumatic experiences are very different, they all have one thing in common, they require resilience from the child to deal with it successfully. How does the child develop this resilience without a positive role-model in his/her life?
There are usually five common themes regarding positive influences in overcoming trauma, i.e.
1) Spirituality/faith in God (or in a higher power/being)
2) Supportive others
3) Therapeutic relationships
5) Expressive writing
SPIRITUALITY/FAITH IN GOD (HIGHER POWER/BEING):
For some, this is an important influence in rising above their traumatic experiences. They rely on their faith both during and after their traumatic experience(s). For others, it is the most important influence in dealing with their trauma. While some individuals prefer to pray on their own, many get involved in their church or place of worship and this helps them through their trauma. In the case of street children, those who knew their parent(s) even for a brief period, had some experience in going to a place of worship at some stage of their lives. Those who never knew their parents, are sometimes drawn to places of worship by watching people go there, by the singing/chanting or by mere curiosity and wanting to find out more. Some are even drawn to religion through soup kitchens or Sunday School activity.
For some, having at least one person they could turn to when they needed them is helpful. Some seek support from family, friends and other adults in the community. One issue relating to this avenue of seeking support is the rejection that many experience. This could lead to them not disclosing their abuse while others could feel forced to seek support elsewhere.
Some seek help from a school counsellor or therapist during their childhood or as an adult. Some feel that therapy really helps them deal with their traumatic experience(s). There are those, however, who do not have positive experiences with therapy. Some feel that their counsellors minimise their traumatic experiences and some feel ignored by their counsellors or that what they have to share is not important. Some could possibly not feel connected or safe enough with their therapists to open up and discuss their experiences.
Some survive their experiences purely on their own self-determination to do so. Their own internal resources lead them to be resilient, healthy adults. The belief that they are strong enough to deal with their situation is what gets them through their traumatic experience(s).
Some deal with trauma by writing down their feelings. They keep a written record of their ordeal and how they copied with it. Some write poetry and others keep a journal. Some initiate writing on their own, as a way to cope with their problems while others are instructed or advised to write by their therapists. This is usually a useful tool when it is too uncomfortable to share (verbalise) the experience with others.
Some people are able to display enormous courage and resilience in dealing with traumatic experiences and in their perception, manage to function as relatively psychologically healthy adults.
When it comes to research on trauma, focussing on the positive (self-determination) rather than the negative (psychopathology) outcomes of individuals who experienced childhood trauma, will direct research to areas that improve the quality of life of these individuals rather than research that focuses on their limitations.
What do you think?