The Roots of Trauma - Phil Bradfield
I find it helpful and hopeful to remember that God desires and is willing to heal emotional trauma: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds [curing their pains and their sorrows]” – Psalm 147:3 (AMPC).
There are paradoxes in place that are helpful to be aware of when dealing with a population that has been exposed to trauma. It is in the context of relationship that children experience most traumatizations, and thus it is in the context of relationship that they heal. Since most of the children in your homes have come to us with trauma as a result of toxic relationships, it makes sense that God would redeem and heal them through new relationships – at least in part. I do not think any one person is responsible to heal the brokenness around them, but I would assert that God wants to use each of us as a resource of healing as we are able.
In December I touched on the paradox of vicarious trauma. As a reminder, when you empathize with a child’s trauma story, you participate in their healing. Unfortunately, holding a compassionate space for them to have their story known will vicariously traumatize you. This is where you (the counselor, house parent, foster parent, etc.) align yourself with love and share in the sufferings of Christ. This is also why it so important to deal with vicarious trauma. I think getting your own counseling is a wonderful place to start; and eventually we also need to find a way to bring those burdens to the Lord and let Him carry us. Godly counseling should always lead to The Wonderful Counselor; anything else is just helping people reconstitute their flesh, which becomes exhausting.
Lastly the paradox of bad behavior. It is critical for the care we are providing to keep sensitivity to trauma at the forefront. Children who have experienced childhood trauma live with elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol is a the natural hormone God gives to our bodies to be released when there is toxic stress and danger. Past toxic and dangerous circumstances is what causes our children in care to exhibit bad behavior, because the elevated cortisol level stays present, which means that these kids are literally living out of their past, yet in the present. Their present is there to help them because of you, but their brain does not know that the danger is over. The human brain stores memory as catalogued fact rather than in the form of past, present, and future. So when a child lives with elevated cortisol levels, the brain assumes current danger in the present, and thus you see fight, flight, or freeze behaviors that are draining on you. Take encouragement in the fact that their acting out behaviors are not about you; not about being resistant; not about being manipulative; not intentional; but are solely about survival, and because of that they have great difficulty building healthy connection and attaching.
As I prepared this month’s newsletter, I prayed about what to Biblically integrate. The Lord kept brining to mind a tree, and then I remembered a story. I believe that the following parable and explanation is what God wants us to focus on. The parable of the barren fig tree in Luke 13:6-9:
6 He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ 8 But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. 9 And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’ ”
This parable is only four verses, but holds so much value for us. The vineyard owner has a fig tree removed and planted in his vineyard. Different land and different soil accustomed to growing grapes. How is a fig tree supposed to flourish in new and foreign soil automatically? I imagine the owner is thinking that he can provide the best land, the best soil, and the best position to receive the sun. After three years he wants a hasty decision, and tells the vinedresser his thoughts because the tree is sucking up his resources and failing to thrive. The vinedresser requests one more year to cultivate and work the soil and root system with fertilizer. My thought is that the vineyard owner is right to expect the fig tree to fall in line and produce good fruit, but he is not seeing what is beneath the surface. Under the surface of the ground is a compromised root system. No good tree can produce bad fruit and likewise a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. The fruit speaks to the health of the root system. In this case, the vinedresser does realize there is an issue under the surface with the roots attaching to the new land. Maybe because the roots were used to unhealthy soil and are not used to attaching in good, healthy soil? So the vinedresser suggests that the owner let it alone for one full year of cultivation. The phrase ‘let it alone’ is also translated (from Greek) as ‘forgive.’ The vinedresser suggests forgiveness and to hold back from fast decisions that have a long term impact on the tree.
We do not get to hear from Jesus about how things ended up for little Figgie, but we can take from it that moving a tree to new land requires new attachment in the context of a new relationship, and great sensitivity to trauma under the surface is a must. Having forgiveness and empathy will cultivate and fertilize the heart. Our last hope is that there would be good fruit, but behavior control cannot be the deciding factor of fruit. Fruit is slowly cultivated and requires patience. If you walk up to any fruit tree you will never hear the limbs and leaves straining to produce fruit. You could shake it, tap it, blow on it, or kick it, but that tree will not produce fruit any faster. The cyclical rate that a tree produces is linked to the relationship between healthy roots and healthy soil. Therefore, there may be times when a counselor helps us cultivate the soil of our own hearts.