As an adoptive parent of children with complex trauma, I hear about “secondary” trauma a lot. I find this to be…reductive. I’m not sure why we would diminish anyone’s trauma but it happens.
Supposedly, secondary trauma happens when a caretaker develops compassion fatigue. As in, your child is anxious and views the world as scary. Due to their anxiety, you take on these anxious characteristics and experience your own anxiety. Your new anxiety is “secondary” to your child’s.
I disagree. If you are anxious then you are anxious. Period. If you are sad and depressed over the difficulties of raising a complex kiddo, then those are your emotions. We all have our own feelings and I fail to see how they are secondary to anyone else’s. We can be quick to identify our children’s trauma. They often experienced it at the hands of biological family. It’s strange that we don’t consider this to be secondary trauma. After all, the perpetrators here most likely experienced their own trauma at some point, and are now acting on it.
Our daughter has been extremely violent. Often. She’s been homicidal. She’s been dangerous. She’s physically hurt herself and the rest of us, especially when she first came home years ago. Our adopted sons can also be violent. They caused property damage and personal damage. Our drywall is full of holes and every single closet door is dented and off the tracks. We don’t even bother to try and repair them anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, our children act this way due to their developmental trauma. My daughter is a beautiful, precious girl with a significant mental illness. Regardless, these acts of violence caused their own trauma.
Before I was a mother, I had never been beaten. When I became a mother in 2014 I was hit, kicked, punched and assaulted with objects on a regular basis. I scoured websites of domestic violence survivors for tips on how to hide the bruises. This isn’t because I was some kind of afterthought to someone else’s trauma. It’s because I, too, was living through domestic violence. In my case, it was hard to get support. Getting help for a dangerous child is ridiculously difficult.
Eventually, with therapy and medication, our kids got better. Not completely safe, but better. Our daughter stabilized for a long time. When she relapsed, it was that much worse for me to live with. I have my own PTSD. If a spouse physically hurt me this way, I’d be considered a victim of domestic violence.
Believe me when I say, it isn’t secondary. Having trauma after multiple beatings is just plain trauma. It’s that simple.
I jump at loud noises. I cringe sometimes when people make arm gestures while standing too close to me. The door to our bedroom sticks in humidity. When my husband pushes it open I jump. Every single time.
It’s gotten better for me over time while Mary has been in residential treatment. It’s gotten better now that Sean no longer lives here. My bruises may have faded away but my fear lingers on.
My point is, I don’t really believe in secondary trauma. My trauma is primary. If you’ve been living in a violent situation then so is yours. I think it’s OK to claim something as our own. I think it’s OK to take care of ourselves, too.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.