Our new understanding of childhood trauma is wonderful in many ways, but I’ve also seen some disturbing downsides.  As we try to help our child trauma survivors overcome the effects of their experiences, it is essential to avoid the twin evils of (1) making a child’s traumatic event the central focus of their life, and (2) believing that they cannot overcome the effects of that trauma.

Focusing on Trauma Can Be Counterproductive

I lost count of the times that I heard my foster children tell me something along the lines of, “I have been the victim of [sexual abuse, domestic violence, physical abuse].  I have a diagnosis of [post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, other mental illness] that I will never be able to overcome. So what’s the point?”  It's an easy trap to fall into with the current emphasis on the effects of childhood trauma.  If the inevitable effects of traumatic experiences are negative and lifelong consequences, then what is the point in their trying to move forward?  If our children are merely the sum of their trauma, then all we can do is warehouse them until we get tired and give up.  That is a very bleak future.

We also can inadvertently reinforce this negative belief by focusing too much on the adverse effects of their experiences.  If we spend all of our time on trying to understand the impact of childhood trauma and little time understanding protective factors for resilience, we risk making trauma the central focus of a child's life.

We need to actively work against that temptation.  The purpose of understanding trauma is not to give our kids excuses for failure, but to help them find paths to success.  We need to understand what goes through the mind of a traumatized child, but then help them take the first step toward the healing process.

I ran across a recent study that illustrates the importance of finding the balance of acknowledging complex trauma without dwelling on it.  The researchers were trying to determine whether content warnings, designed to let people know that upcoming movies, literature, or class assignments might contain offensive material, help trauma survivors.  The study found no benefit, but the part that’s relevant to this blog post is the finding that “giving trigger warnings to trauma survivors caused them to view trauma as more central to their life narrative.”

Other studies have found that people who view trauma as central to their lives are more likely to have more severe PTSD symptoms. A recent literature review found that well-intentioned trigger warnings can increase stressors and increase maladaptive behavior.   One study of sexual assault survivors found that people who view trauma “as a reference point for their future” may be at increased risk of PTSD.

It’s that latter formulation that is supremely important to parenting children with trauma in their backgrounds.  We need to avoid helping our kids make their trauma “a reference point for their future.” We cannot control our children's emotional responses to their past experiences or how they think, but we can set an example of nothing viewing them as forever broken and unfixable.

Trauma Effects Are Not Inevitable

One serious disadvantage to the current fascination with the adverse childhood experiences study and “ACE scores” is the underlying assumption that ACE scores predict a child's mental health issues or ability to function in adult life.  That ACE study, however, only demonstrated a population-wide correlation with higher risk factors for worse physical health, not individualized predictions of health problems.  A much more recent study indicates that ACEs do not predict individual risk of health problems. People can develop resilience, both emotionally and physically, and ACEs screening does not capture that possibility.  The most that mental health research can do is show statistical possibilities.

Using ACEs, then, to try to predict how our children will respond to trauma is useless.  Even worse, focusing on negative experiences can encourage negative ways of thinking that, according to cognitive behavioral therapy principles, increases our kids’ mental health challenges. If we let our kids' experiences define their future, we are doing them a grave disservice.

We will see negative thinking in many ways.  The most obvious is when our kids explicitly think or say that they will never be able to break their bad patterns.  Those times are easy for us to recognize.  The more difficult times are when they lean on their trauma to avoid difficult work.  They can become so used to having their trauma as an explanation that it can become an all-purpose excuse to avoid learning the very difficult life skills that adults need to become resilient and successful.

This dynamic is particularly tempting in a culture like ours that encourages people to explore their victimhood.  When being a victim has currency, then everyone wants to collect it.  It’s hard to stop our children who have been actual victims from creating their own hoard of victimhood currency.   Nevertheless, we need to constantly remember that our job requires acknowledging their trauma, but then empowering them to move past it.

Moving Toward Resilience

I had these thoughts in mind when I ran across a recent article about children living amidst armed conflicts and political violence.  The authors looked at almost 700 studies of children living with conflict.  They pointed out that one key factor in resilience is the concept of agency, specifically how children “activate the resources in their environment” to overcome their circumstances.  The overview identifies numerous sources of agency, including religious beliefs, education, sports leagues, and civic engagement.

I was particularly struck, though, by the authors’ condemnation of the Western view of children as passive victims.  For example, according to one study they reviewed, “the term ‘trauma’ did not exist in Rwanda until the arrival of foreign aid and international nongovernmental organizations after the genocide.”  The overview concluded that, until we move past focusing only on children’s vulnerability, we will not be able to help them develop agency and resilience.

Looking past childhood trauma does not downplay the very real suffering of our children.  Of course, living with violence or abuse or discrimination causes very deep scars, and we need to change many things in our society.  But our children’s trauma does not define who they are.  Their trauma always will be part of their past, but it does not limit what they can accomplish.  It does not help our children in the slightest when well-meaning, rich, and accomplished professors, celebrities, or leaders look down from the heights, declare them to be perpetual victims, and then move on to the next shiny new idea.

The good news is that we can rebalance the statistics for our children.  We can provide supportive relationships, a safe place to grow up, a support system among family members, good mental health care to deal with unresolved childhood trauma, and all of the other factors discussed in this blog.  We can't force our children to do the work they need to do in order to better cope with the toxic stress in their history.  But we do have an important role in reducing the risk factors by providing a supportive environment for them to learn the most healthy way to think of their traumatic past.


As part of understanding how children experience trauma, we also need to understand and believe that our children can overcome their past.  Then we have to show them how to take control of their future. Whatever their situation, we cannot think of them, or let them think of themselves, only as victims.  Their trauma may be ever-present, but it does not prevent them from succeeding.


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Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.