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Trauma & your symptoms: The not so obvious connection
I admit. If I see symptoms, I look for trauma. Even worse, now that you are catching me in confession mode; because I assess primarily through an attachment perspective, I look for childhood trauma; specifically attachment dysfunction.
In plain English?
If I meet a client with symptoms that are disrupting her life; like, insomnia, anxiety, depression, fearfulness, phobias, social issues, an inability to hold down a job or manage a home, back pain, migraines, flashbacks, startle reflexes, anger management, or any other type of manifestation of behaviors that have brought the client into therapy; I look for trauma. And in my search for trauma, my assessment begins with a genogram.
Genograms, childhood trauma & symptoms:
For those who are unfamiliar with a genogram, it is a family map. Remember those family trees we had to do as kids in school? This is sort of the same thing. Except that the genogram maps don’t only include the actual existence of people in our families, but many of the interactions, relationships, and intergenerational patterns that exist in families; along with unspoken rules, expectations, and even secrets.
How do attachment based therapists work with trauma & symptoms?
Most clients who come to me choose me as a therapist precisely because I primarily identify as an attachment-based therapist. Attachment based therapists believe that most of our problems originate not only from childhood, but as a result of the relationship we have with our primary caregivers (Mom first, Dad second), followed by those relationships with siblings, grandparents, extended family, and the more external environments that we move into as we age. External environments include school, camp, neighborhood, shul, seminary, yeshiva, and work.
So yeah, that list of symptoms I gave you a few paragraphs before? I do a genogram to assess the possible impact, influence, and world views a person has learned from her family of origin that has been the seeds of those symptoms.
And to make my life easier, I look for trauma to explain this wide variety of symptoms. I look for dysfunction. And here’s my problem. And the problem of many of my clients. When we create this genogram, sure there are stuff that are not-so-perfect. But overall, the client says, “Mindy, my childhood was wonderful. Perfect even. My parents were really nice, good people. You won’t find anything in my genogram that is going to give you a clue why I have not been able to hold down a job for more than three months.” It’s a problem for a therapist, you realize, when there’s no trauma that explains so many symptoms.
What happens when the genogram reveals no trauma?
Enter Jonice Webb, Phd. and her wonderful, must-read book Running on Empty. Jonice talks about people who display all the above symptoms, sometimes more, often crippling, and still say, “Life was perfect. I am just messed up for being like this”. She speaks about a childhood that appears idyllic, with parents who were loving and well-meaning, whose perception of their childhood is happy and healthy. Yet, they feel unfulfilled, unhappy, and empty.
The clue to these unhappy adults is found in what did not happen. When you look at the picture of those childhoods, the answers are in the white spaces where the picture isn’t.
Therein lies the clues to the malfunctioning of these adults. And what was missing, what is not filled into the picture is emotional attunement to the child that once was, before she became the teen or adult in my office.
The child may have been physically cared for with supper and clothing and a briefcase neatly organized each morning; but emotionally starved in ways both big and small that left the child with such an emptiness that adulthood could not withstand the gaping hole inside. In Jonice’s words,
It is the sins of omission rather than of commission.
How can we ensure that we are not unknowingly traumatizing our children?
Now, be aware that all of us mess up with our children. We all mess up and miss clues and don’t realize stuff. But what differentiates emotional neglect from plain ol’ parenting is the frequency of those mistakes and the intensity of those mistakes. And no, parents who are neglectful are not bad people. They usually love their children passionately and would be devastated to learn their role in their teen or adult child’s present emotional emptiness.
This article is not to point fingers at parents. It is to make at-risk parents aware of what may be impacting their parenting. It is to make teens and adults with symptoms of emotional neglect aware of what may have contributed to their present symptoms. And, its final intent is to provide awareness to both of these populations so they can finally learn what they can do about their deficiencies and how to fill the void.
Are you an at risk parent?
Jonice Webb identifies twelve types of parents whose children are at risk for being emotionally neglected. We are not talking about pathologically unhealthy parents who damage their children but the ones who mean well but have some of the traits of these 12 types of parents that impact their children.
The 12 at risk parent types include a parent with narcissistic traits, the authoritarian or permissive parent (in contrast to the authoritative/democratic parent); the divorced or widowed parent, the depressed parent, the workaholic, the perfectionist, the parent with addictive or sociopathic traits, and the parent of a special needs child. The last two types of parents is the parent who parentifies their child (meaning, making the child act in charge of the parent as if the roles have been reversed) and the parent who has been emotionally neglected him/herself growing up.
The child growing up with a lack of emotional attunement as a result of these parental challenges will exhibit the symptoms described previously because of the feelings of emptiness they carry. Their feelings of emptiness is typically accompanied with feelings of compassion for others but not for themselves, guilt and shame, self blame and anger, unrealistic self appraisal, the fear that something is inherently wrong with them, and that if somebody would really know them that person would run away from them.
These adult children typically feel like the glass is half full. It is filled perhaps with positive experiences of childhood made up of suppers, new shoes, and holidays with family, but they still feel empty.
From emptiness & childhood trauma to finding relief:
What then is the path to wholeness for such children? Learning to nurture oneself. Having self compassion. Learning tools to self soothe. It all sounds simple, but for someone running on empty, these are great leaps. It’s like those steps in the museum that are so far apart it’s a wonder that anyone can make it from one to the next. But it’s possible. It’s possible by taking small steps that eventually comprise bigger steps.
And for the parent who recognizes herself and the risk factors to her children? Awareness of his or her emotional attunement is the first step. It is the greatest gift you can give yourself and your children. And, look out for those genograms. If you don’t understand those family patterns you may be doomed to repeat them with your own children.
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This article was originally published in Binah Magazine.