Vicarious Trauma - by Phil Bradfield
Greetings all, and Merry Christmas to you and your families! I am excited to write monthly and include resources that will keep us all growing in a trauma informed approach. My goal is for us to become a ministry that is able to consistently give trauma informed care to the children we are serving. Before we emphasize our children’s trauma, we have to consider our own trauma as a result of our history and those we serve.
Therefore this first month I am writing to you about vicarious trauma. Researchers define vicarious trauma as the helping professionals’ trauma reactions that are secondary to repeated exposure to their clients’ or consumers’ trauma experiences. In other words, as foster or house parents, you can experience vicarious trauma as you are exposed to your foster children’s trauma over and over. Being repeatedly exposed to it can occur in different ways. For example, it could happen simply by hearing about multiple traumas in one or more of your children. Or it could also rear its head when the child’s trauma is triggered and they exhibit difficult behavior.
What are some of the results, or symptomology of vicarious trauma? Behavioral science by history categorized everything for many years under a term called ‘burnout.’ Burnout is more related to feeling overwhelmed and/or overloaded, and technically can occur to any person in any field of work or ministry. So while burnout can occur to a person who is experiencing vicarious trauma, the more likely symptom is called ‘compassion fatigue.’ The temptation for a person experiencing compassion fatigue is to gradually lessen their level of compassion over time. Although it is a slow process, and especially so for Christians, it can and does occur. The sad truth and full bloom of compassion fatigue can be felt in a few verses of scripture in Matthew 12. The context here is that Jesus was already being religiously grated on for breaking Sabbath rules. In Matt 12:9-14 he breaks the religious order of the day by healing the withered hand of a man on the Sabbath. Then in verse 15 we can see he heals all the people who had need. Dropping down to verse 22 we can observe that he healed and delivered a man who was blind and mute. Shockingly after all of those signs and wonders, the Pharisees in verse 38 ask Jesus for a sign that he is who he claims to be. I honestly believe that the Pharisees were so detached from humanity, that they could not see the Father’s heart working through Jesus to bring restoration. They were detached enough to be totally blinded to the fact that when God performs miracles, that it is all about compassion for broken humanity.
Vicarious trauma can also create problems for us in esteem, intimacy, and control needs. As we are confronted with the cruelty of the world, the injustices, or the pain, our ability to esteem others can become compromised. We all have intimacy needs, but vicarious trauma can cause us to be tempted to detach, isolate, or push others away. Vicarious trauma can also create issues in our need for control. For example, when a child’s trauma is triggered and they exhibit bad behavior, our brains experience a disruption in our sense of control, leaving us feeling helpless or overwhelmed, and therefore compensate through overcontrol in other areas. Our immediate temptation can be lockdown mode, but that prevents us from showing compassion or empathy. Children do need consequences for bad behavior, but equally critical if not more, is our ability to maintain connection in discipline. This means finding ways to keep empathy and compassion in full view of the child while they are experiencing disciplinary consequences. Maintaining connection in discipline is doable through empathy and compassion.
Researchers have figured out that empathic engagement with trauma survivors puts the helping professional at risk for vicarious trauma. So there is a paradox at work here, because helping these children to have their story known and be empathized with is healing for them, but will cause you potential vicarious trauma. I truly believe this is part of the work, but greater than that, it is where we embrace the sufferings of Christ. The only way through it is Jesus. He is able to get us all through these issues with emotional health intact!
Lastly, I want to urge a reminder that we are all wrestling in a spiritual conflict that we cannot see with our natural eyes. One of the most powerful passages of scripture in light of this reminder is Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” The kingdom of darkness would try to squeeze and mold us down into the world’s system of dealing with trauma, which is accepting that compassion fatigue is inevitable and that self-care is the only answer. I would submit to each of you that we are more than overcomers, and can daily live as such by being transformed through the renewing of our minds. Positioning ourselves to have our minds renewed by God is probably one of the most caring things we can do for ourselves.
I have added a link below to a TED talk on vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, and it does have some good applicability to our work.
I am honored to serve with you all!