“No,” my foster daughter patiently explained. “I can go to college without getting good grades. I can write a killer essay about how my dad deserted us, my mom is a drug addict, and now I live with you old people who don’t understand me. I have more than enough victim points to make up for my grades.”
Of course, her plan didn’t work out as expected, and I have seen numerous other kids make the same mistake. The more they examine and rely on their victimhood, the less successful they are in moving forward. The warning for us as parents is that it is possible to be too sensitive to our children’s trauma. The more we mention and discuss it, the more we risk falling into the trap of letting their trauma define them.
I ran across a recent study that has helped me clarify how to find the balance of acknowledging a 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. 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.
That previous statement is key. We cannot agree when our kids make their trauma “a reference point for their future.” We cannot control how they think, but we can push back when we seen them falling into this trap.
We will see it in many ways. The most obvious is when they explicitly think or say that they will never be able to break their bad patterns. Those time are easy for us to recognize. The more difficult times are when they lean on their trauma to avoid difficult work. When, in my foster daughter’s phrase, they count up their victim points. They can become so used to having their trauma as an all-purpose excuse that they 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 encourage 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.
No matter how difficult the task, we have to try. We need to know and keep showing our children that they are much more than the sum of their trauma, and that their experiences do not define their future. We need to constantly remember that our job involves acknowledging their trauma, but then empowering them to move past it.