Healing from complex trauma begins with compassion
Written by Mike Giresi,
in Section Featured Articles
There’s no handbook for being a parent (wouldn’t it be great if there were?) but that doesn’t mean you can’t change the way you take care of your teen, your whole family, and yourself.
Many of the parents we meet feel like they’re failing their child. Parents see their teen struggling at school, lashing out at home, isolating, and pulling back from activities they used to love, and they don’t know how to communicate with him or to cope with what’s happening. The moms and dads we talk to blame themselves, and they worry that what’s happening is somehow their fault.
Accepting that there is something not working properly in the way you and your teen relate to one another is the first of many steps toward healing. Crucial to this healing is developing a sense of compassion, especially toward yourself, and included in this is the understanding that you have done the best you can with the information and resources that were available to you.
As with any of the articles we share, we invite you to notice if you are turning this information against yourself through shame, blame, self-criticism or self-hatred. Bringing awareness to how you are filtering this information can provide you with really helpful insights that can transform your relationship with yourself and your teenager from one that is grounded in shame and pressure to one of compassion and presence.
When parents come to us and describe their difficulty with understanding why their child is struggling, or what their struggle means in the greater context of their child’s mental and emotional health, there can be a heightened sensitivity to causes that they, the parents, might be responsible for.
As adults and parents, we put incredible pressure on ourselves, passing new information through the filter of fault: we beat ourselves up, are wary of the wider world, and we second-guess almost every instinct and impulse. Our children are witnesses to this process, whether we are aware of it or not, and interpret our self-criticism (and the behaviors that stem from it) as their fault.
These chronic patterns of self-rejection are the consequences of complex trauma, an often subtle yet pervasive form of trauma that shapes the foundation of our identities.
The social, political, cultural and technological changes of our world leave an imprint on us
Today’s parents have watched the world change drastically from the world we knew as children. With growing fear and uncertainty about our environmental and economic stability, adults are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety. Unrelenting pressure to perform at high levels in your work, your social circle or within your family leads to deprioritizing your own needs and self-care, resulting in burnout and feelings of depression. Your child has always known this.
Your child’s way of perceiving and understanding the world began in the womb, while he shared a nervous system with his mother. Young children, being hypersensitive and vulnerable, instinctively seek safety through their connection to their parents as their only means of survival; they do this even if it means suppressing their own needs or leaving parts of themselves behind. They grow to implicitly understand how they need to show up in their environment by adapting to the unintended fallout of the anxiety and depression their parents are experiencing. This process of adapting to their early life circumstances, environments, and relationships is at the foundation of how children and teens make sense of themselves and the world.
Children take responsibility for their environment: they learn it from their parents, who learned it from their parents
When we talk in group with our clients, a teen might share about how much he loves his parents, how warm and kind and wonderful they are. And it’s not hyperbole—his parents are generous, they keep a beautiful home, they’re involved in his activities, and supportive of his endeavors—but perhaps one of the parents struggles with acute anxiety or depression.
The teenager sitting in our group, talking about his wonderful parents, has still been struggling to such a significant degree that he finds himself in need of our care. As a young child, he implicitly knew that if he approached his parents with his confusing thoughts and feelings that he would trigger their anxiety or depression. This pattern of behavior may have made it appear to his parents as though nothing was wrong and that he had everything he needed.
As a teenager he avoids expressing his feelings because he doesn’t believe that his parents will be able to provide him with the relief he wants, and he fears that he’ll overwhelm them. Children learn to dial down the expression of their needs in favor of protecting their relationship with their parent, which puts parents and teens at odds.
Did these parents intentionally suppress their child’s needs? Of course not! But this reflex of a child deprioritizing his needs in relation to his parents becomes the root of his suffering as he transitions into adolescence and young adulthood.
Meeting the needs of the entire family is part of the mission of Family First Adolescent Services
While our primary treatment focuses on the adolescent in your family who is struggling with mental or behavioral health issues, substance use or problematic gaming, we also provide help and support to parents. Weekly family sessions as well as an intensive, on-campus family program help parents address some of the most prescient issues affecting their family. Where appropriate, we’ll refer parents to local resources for additional therapeutic support, like community-based support groups or therapists.
Our intention for families is not to blame and shame, but rather to invite parents as well as their teenagers to be present and open-minded to the consequences of unaddressed past trauma. Our approach is compassionate, respectful and non-invasive. The work we do together isn’t to dig into your past trauma or force you to dredge up old, painful memories. Instead, we help parents focus on the ways they learned to adapt and how those adaptations show up in everyday life.
We want parents to see that the ways they adapted in their family of origin were necessary for their own survival; that they did the best they could with what was available to them in that environment.
We help parents and teens embrace the subtle beauty in the ways that they have learned to adapt. For example, taking care of others or possessing a heightened sense of empathy are beautiful qualities in a person. Where they become problematic is when an individual is unable to connect with their own emotions or provide themselves with necessary self-care.
Building resilience by reinforcing agency
The treatment we provide adolescent boys, which in most cases includes applying the principles of NARM, helps teens relate to themselves through their own agency—supporting them to redefine their sense of identity, make their own decisions, and practice self-care.
Exploring what teenagers want for themselves and supporting reconnection through self-inquiry and moment-to-moment tracking of identity helps teens understand how they have been affected by their coping mechanisms, both positively and negatively. This insight can be a powerful tool for building a young person’s sense of agency and self-direction.
By focusing on the present moment, teens can learn to differentiate what they want from what they believe others want from them, how they feel from how they believe they’re supposed to feel, and how much pressure they put on themselves as opposed to the pressure they believe is coming from everywhere else. Teens become aware of how their own attitudes and behaviors have prevented them from being connected to themselves and others.
When parents and teens both seek help to heal unaddressed complex trauma or dysfunctional coping, their relationship can truly transform. By letting go of guilt and shame, they can find a way out of the cycle of chaos they’ve been rooted in, and create a path forward with compassion and understanding.
Family First Adolescent services provides treatment tailored for boys 14-18 who are struggling with mental and behavioral health issues, substance use, and problematic gaming. Are we right for your teen? Call for a complimentary consultattion and to learn more about our teen-centric program (561) 328-7370.