Secondary Traumatic Stress

Phil Bradfield

I hope and pray that everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving and truly enjoys the holiday season leading up to the celebration of the coming of our Lord in the flesh. Last month, we looked at managing our own trauma, and this month I want to focus on acknowledging a particular area of secondary trauma.

As a reminder, secondary trauma is another term for vicarious trauma. Secondary trauma happens to caregivers, professionals and others through repeated exposure to firsthand accounts or stories about traumatic events. Working as a house parent, foster parent, counselor or administrator in child welfare, it is a matter of when you will experience secondary trauma, not if. The closer you are to trauma every day, the faster it tends to affect you.

Taking a deeper look, I’d like to address the secondary trauma that can occur when a person is exposed daily to the trauma reactions that children in their care may have. Children and adolescents may present a wide range of emotions and behavioral reactions to trauma, just as adults do. But children and adolescents who experience this trauma have not yet matured. Many who do mature go on to become adults who seem emotionally stuck at the age they were when the trauma occurred.  As we help them develop, it’s important to be sensitive to their individual reactions and to manage our own secondary trauma.

When you are around children or adolescents who have experienced trauma, you will run into a variety of reactions. These reactions will contribute to your feelings of burnout or compassion fatigue and will eventually lead to secondary trauma. Reactions to trauma usually vary by age and maturity, but the following examples give us some idea of what trauma reactions might look like at each stage of development:

Preschool age

  • Maintain a fear of being separated from a caregiver or parent
  • Scream or cry often
  • Eat poorly or lose weight
  • Experience night terrors

Elementary age

  • Struggle with anxiety or are fearful
  • Experience feelings of shame
  • Have a hard time concentrating
  • Sleep with difficulty

Adolescent

  • Isolate or struggle with depression
  • Develop eating disorders
  • Attempt self-harm or self-harming behaviors
  • Abuse drugs and/or alcohol
  • Engage in risky sexual behaviors

If you have several children or adolescents in your home who have experienced trauma, then you are likely dealing with many behaviors that pull on you, drain you and exhaust you emotionally, mentally and even physically. Increasing the rules won’t help to squelch these behaviors, instead we need to show supernatural grace as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Implementing more rules can create an atmosphere of performance and punishment. But leaning into the Lord will create a therapeutic atmosphere of grace and discipline.

While we are helping the children in our care, we also need to address our own secondary trauma. Realistically, we understand that we can’t avoid secondary trauma altogether,  so we learn how to manage it. Managing our trauma means prioritizing counseling and abiding in the Lord through a lifestyle of prayer, Scripture study and worship. Spending time with a counselor does not mean we are weak in faith or somehow unable to hack it in whatever God has assigned us to do. We can and should lean into counseling and our relationship with the Lord. In His faithfulness and wisdom God will guide us to become people full of mercy and bearing good fruit.

One of my favorite Psalms always comes to mind when I think about self-care, counseling and abiding in Christ. Psalm 1:1-3 says, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.

A tree planted by the river has no idea if there is a drought happening in the land. The tree grows and reaches upward toward the things that are seen, and likewise grows its roots downward into the things that are unseen. In this small metaphor, as we are like trees planted by streams of water, counseling is the tangible — what we can see and reach toward, and God serves as an Anchor, though unseen, He helps us continually take root and grow from His faithful provision .