By Jill Carstens
When I was a teen, my parents unexpectedly divorced. In my eyes, one day they were happy; the next they hated each other. Their split changed my life forever.
Relaxed divorce laws during that time resulted in the first wave of historic numbers of couples splitting during the late 1970’s and early 80’s. The prevailing philosophy concerning the effects of divorce on children then was that they “are resilient,” and that my brother and I would be “fine.”
Therefore, during the chaos that ensued in our household, my brother and I were not really included in the divorce arrangements yet were expected to be ok with our lives being turned upside down. I might not call divorce a trauma, but my brother and I really were not okay for a long time.
Yes, children might be capable of resiliency, but should we take that for granted and just assume they are okay after a difficult event? I recently read Brad Wetzler’s book “Into the Soul of the World.” I know Brad from a writing class where he had mentioned experiencing a childhood trauma.
I did not know what that trauma had been until I read his book, in which he describes a trip with his father where he literally almost drowned. The near-drowning would seem to be enough to qualify as a trauma, but his father’s blunt dismissal of the accident is what has plagued his adult life. His father asserted that Wetzler overreacted to what happened, essentially gas-lighting him and then labeling him as “unmasculine” the rest of his life.
Although I did not almost drown, my mother held on to the “resiliency” assertion and pretty much continued her life as if nothing major had changed. If I expressed sadness or frustration with our new life, I felt unacknowledged and it was suggested that I was overreacting.
My mother, with whom I had developed my first “trusts,” was inadvertently dismissing my feelings. This caused me to distrust my own feelings.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), “The importance of a child’s close relationship with a caregiver cannot be overestimated. Through our attachment relationships, children learn to trust others, regulate their emotions and interact with the world; they develop a sense of the world as safe or unsafe, and come to understand their own value as individuals. When those relationships are unstable or unpredictable, a child often resorts to feeling helpless and that he or she is bad and the world is a terrible place.”
After years of experiencing his father’s negative talk, Wetzler grew to feel hatred toward himself. That he was “bad,” unworthy. His father, an adult in a position of trust, chose a hurtful way to deal with Wetzler’s trauma.
Unlike obvious traumas like physical abuse, it is often the more subtle traumas that are hardest to detect. The result of years of brief transgressions can add up to the equivalent of one big event. When trauma happens this way, it might be harder to diagnose, but is no less damaging.
Complex trauma, according to the NCTSN, is a series of events that are personally and emotionally invasive. If they happen within the family dynamic the effects can become part of a child’s impression of normal and follow them into adulthood.
For Wetzler, after looking back over his childhood through the eyes of a good therapist, his father’s imposing of what might be described as tough love took place through years of snide and demeaning comments that were cloaked in the label of “joking.”
Even something as offhand as a condescending facial expression, when it becomes the norm of response, transforms into an abusive tool. When it is a parent wielding this tool, it can cause lifelong scars.
Children experiencing dysfunctional family situations often find any way they can to adapt. The NCTSN suggests these kinds of learned adaptations make sense when physical or emotional threats are active, but as a child grows up and encounters safe relationships, those adaptations no longer help and can actually hinder the development of healthy relationships.
I was at a high school reunion a few years back and an old classmate was telling a group how he “doesn’t connect” with his son who had eschewed sports for thespian activities.
The look on this classmate’s face was so ridden with judgment, rejection and dismay, I shudder to think if he revealed such displeasure about his son in front of his son, simply because he was choosing different interests than his jock-dad. I am bringing this all up because, even if children are deemed “resilient,” or even seem to be navigating a difficult situation well, we must be careful.
Childhood is a critical time when our brain and emotional systems are developing. If they develop with trauma or dysfunction, that child will most likely take on coping mechanisms that will eventually impede his success as an adult.
I am certainly not implying that we are all being bad parents. I know my mother did the best she could during that time period when divorce was still new. But we know more now. I do not advocate walking on coals around your children or responding to every accomplishment like they won the Nobel Prize either. But let’s consider our responses and proceed with the awareness of their power. Ask questions and defer judgment.
The lesson here is: Don’t blow off your child’s feelings. If they were unfortunate to witness to a traumatic situation or are repetitively bullied at school, become their advocate and get them some help now so that they can learn to lead healthy and productive adult lives. Let’s not always assume resiliency. Sometimes strength is in having the humility to seek support.
Jill Carstens taught for 30 years and now enjoys writing for this publication! You can view more of her writing on Instagram @lettersfrommissjill. Email her with comments or story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.