Effects of Trauma to Children
The family is a critical support system to human beings before, during and after stressful events. It is but normal those members of the family system and are also affected, sometimes even more than the victim him/herself. The whole system "changes" with the victim's traumatization. The routine in the house, the family structure, communication patterns, including schedules are affected because of the inclusive effect of a traumatic event in the family.
Children are the most affected by these events. They are always the first ones to feel the changes in the house atmosphere, the confusion and fears of their parents, the hushed talks, the insecurities or the hesitations of the people around them.
The sad thing is they are the least to be attended to.
Robert's initial confusion and helplessness when his mother was not yet around could be considered normal reaction under those circumstances. But everything had a different effect on him when his father came back and he saw the transformation of his own father from a caring and loving person, responsible as well as reasonable to an irritable, sluggish, withdrawn and self-indulgent person to be taken cared of, watched over and constantly attended to.
BALAY had been helping the family when they were still looking for Robert's father. When the father was taken in as caseload in mid 2000, the focus of the treatment was definitely the father. But the intervention plan was for the whole family through the Family Systems Approach (FSA). Part of the initial steps taken was to take in Robert as an educational assistance grantee, not only to ease the family's economic burden but for Robert to resume his schooling and 'normalize' his own routine. The other siblings went back to school too.
From the initial observations of his mother, it was in the course of the home and school visits that the BALAY caseworker handling the case confirmed that Robert was showing almost similar symptoms of trauma as his father. This is called Secondary Traumatic Stress (Figley 1995a), defined as "the natural, consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from the knowledge about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other."
The whole family was the key factor in Robert as well as his father's recovery from emotional wounds of that painful incident. There is little doubt that the family, plus the social support system in general, is the single most important resource in emotional recovery from catastrophe or tragedies (Figley & McCubbin, 1983).
Aside from the individual counseling sessions with the father, there was likewise individual sessions with Robert, family workshops involving the whole family to restore affected relationships and communication patterns. There were also follow – ups on Robert and his siblings through personality development workshops involving other traumatized youth and children, follow – up on Robert's parents through human development and skills enhancement seminars involving other traumatized couples.
One important treatment approach apart from the FSA used in Robert, his father and family's treatment was exposure therapy. This one required time and patience but the effort of all concerned became crucial to its execution.
As for Robert's recovery, one significant aspect of his healing is being able to go back to school again; being with his peers or, doing his school projects together with his father. School brought structure to his life, gave him more tasks to perform [outside the home setting], and brought him in contact with others. These, and other BALAY activities like meeting other traumatized children during Summer Camps and workshops, knowing that what happened to his family is not 'abnormal', facilitated Robert's recovery.
Traumatic events are distressing because they happen with very little or no warning to anyone. No one can have the time to prepare or practice a plan to avoid it. Sense of control is lost, and everything is overwhelming to the victim. One cannot be aware how to cope with it in advance. This is most true to youth and children.
Robert's thoughts about the dangers and possible outcome of his father's abduction evoked his own trauma because he cares deeply for his father. His feelings and reactions intensified when he saw that his father transformed.
But the family's supportive role to the whole system abated the effects of trauma and most possible post-traumatic stress disorder. First, the mother became the key in detecting the symptoms of Robert, everyone helped in confronting the problem and going over the traumatic events, and lastly, they supported each other in resolving the resulting family conflicts related to that painful incident.
Most likely, there are more Roberts in our midst. It is because trauma does not happen to families like Roberts' alone. There are thousands of them who are unaware about it, and very few are attending to their needs emotionally, psychologically, mentally and even in their material needs. Very few realizes that the long term effects of trauma, especially conflict or war – related trauma, could severely affect the potentials and opportunities of youth and children of this generation.
Figley, C. (1995a). Compassion Fatigue as secondary stress disorder: An Overview. New York: Brunner/Mazel
Figley, C. & McCubbin, H. I. (1983) An Overview of family reactions. New York: Brunner/Mazel