Last week I had the very great pleasure of being interviewed by Dr. Guy MacPherson. Guy is a clinical psychologist and the moving force behind the West Coast Trauma Project, a website dedicated to raising awareness of trauma and helping trauma therapists thrive. “My goal with the West Coast Trauma Project,” Guy explains, “is to help other trauma therapists thrive – through providing actionable information, community building, inspiration and support.”
One of the resources Guy offers on his website is the Trauma Therapist Podcast, a series of recorded interviews with therapists in the field of trauma. My conversation with Guy provided me with an opportunity to share from my heart about my life and work. Follow here, to listen in.
I’m seeing several families in my practice now with adolescent sons. Adolescence is a challenging time for kids from even the healthiest of families. It’s a time when teens begin to separate from their parents and establish themselves as individuals. To successfully transition into adulthood, teens need to learn how to take on the tasks of adult life, including job skills, relationship skills, and self- discipline.
These can be almost impossible tasks for teens from families with misguided or deficient parenting. Poorly-parented children tend to act out, rebel, isolate, or get self-destructive. The stakes for these kinds of behavior are much higher during the teen years. This is the time families show up in my office because they are in crisis. There’s plenty I can do to help.
I want to talk briefly about parenting styles, which I learned about early in my professional training and included in my typewritten thesis (this was forty years ago). Time may have passed, but these profiles are just as valid today as when I was an intern.
There are three classic parenting styles: authoritarian; permissive; and authoritative. The following definitions come directly from my thesis.
- The authoritarian parent attempts to shape and control the behavior and attitudes of the child in accordance with a set, absolute standard of conduct. They value obedience as a virtue and favor punitive, forceful measures to curb a child’s self-will where the child’s actions or beliefs conflict with the parent’s.
- The permissive parent attempts to be non-punitive and accepting towards the child’s impulses, desires, and actions. The parent consults with the child about policy decisions and makes few demands for household responsibility or orderly behavior. The parent offers themselves as a resource for the child to use as they wish.
- The authoritative parent directs the child’s activities in a rational, issue-oriented manner, encouraging verbal give and take, and sharing with the child the reason behind their policy. The parent values the child’s unique abilities and cultivates a balance of autonomous self-will and disciplined conformity.
The authoritative model of parenting creates healthy families. Most people accept that flawed parenting styles like authoritarian and permissive will lead to problems for children. What many people don’t understand, however, is that kids from both authoritarian and permissive types of families can end up with very similar attitude and behavior problems. The outcomes for authoritarian or permissive parenting can be equally severe and destructive, especially for teens.
That’s what I’m seeing now in the troubled families in my practice. There’s been harshness and neglect, or pandering and overindulgence. The bottom line? Tragic difficulties for all involved.
List articles are popular on the internet, some more helpful than others. Catherine Woodiwiss’ “A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma” from the Sojouners website is better than most I’ve found on the subject. Catherine has done a good job of translating her experiences with trauma into wisdom and insights worth taking in. Below, you’ll find her first point, “Trauma permanently changes us.” Follow the link at the end of this post to read her entire article.
1. Trauma permanently changes us.
This is the big, scary truth about trauma: there is no such thing as “getting over it.” The five stages of grief model marks universal stages in learning to accept loss, but the reality is in fact much bigger: a major life disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no “back to the old me.” You are different now, full stop.
This is not a wholly negative thing. Healing from trauma can also mean finding new strength and joy. The goal of healing is not a papering-over of changes in an effort to preserve or present things as normal. It is to acknowledge and wear your new life—warts, wisdom, and all—with courage.
Read the full article here.
I had an almost identical word-for-word exchange with two of my patients last week. Both of these patients experienced significant early childhood deprivation and abuse. Both continue to be haunted by the pain from their distant pasts and yet they cut themselves off from feeling that pain.
This is not unusual. Disconnecting from pain—what I call dissociating—happens frequently with trauma survivors. No one likes to be in pain, particularly if they feel like there’s nothing that can be done about it. Or that if by feeling the pain, they might fall apart or not be able to function.
One way people use to avoid feeling old pain is to claim that they don’t want to indulge in self-pity. Both my patients told me that. Now I’m one of the first people who would agree that self-pity is an indulgent, useless state. Nothing good comes from it, certainly no constructive progress toward a better life. But what I was asking my patients to do last week was not to indulge in self-pity, but to allow themselves to grieve.
Grief is a healing process. Grief acknowledges that someone or something valuable has been lost. It recognizes that this loss must be felt—fully—so that the grieving person can let go and move on. I’ve seen patients trapped in protracted grief, and it’s a painful, lonely, hopeless place to be.
If my two patients were able to grieve for their losses of love and nurture during their early years, they would be more able to embrace the opportunities for love and fulfillment in their present-day lives. I know this idea is not obvious to most people, particularly hurting people. It’s important, though, to clear up the differences between self-pity and grief so that healing can take place.
Last week I wrote about reparenting in psychotherapy. I’ve used it as part of my practice since the beginning, about 45 years ago. Reparenting places a sizable burden of responsibility on a therapist, because it means committing in every way to being a loving parent to often deeply troubled people.
My patients have often grown up in families with neglect or abuse of one kind or another. In crucial ways, they didn’t get the help they needed to become capable adults. They carry around pain from their childhoods combined with pain from their troubled current lives. When I reparent them – become the “good parent” they never had – they have a fresh chance for something better.
With reparenting, something interesting happens. I get to see how my patients were as children. I get to see how they were treated by their parents and the ways they protected themselves, as best they could, from neglect and abuse. Because I take on a parent role (even though I’m the good guy) they get confused and end up thinking I’m just like their true parents were. It doesn’t feel good sometimes, but it’s an important part of the process of healing that they bring this confusion out with me.
Just last week, at the end of a session, I had a patient say, “I know you’re mad at me.” No, I wasn’t, I explained. Why did they think so? “Because I didn’t work hard and I made no progress,” they said. It was clear to me in that moment that as a child, my patient had needed to earn their parent’s love. Most of the time, nothing they did was ever going to be good enough.
So I had the opportunity right then to genuinely acknowledge my patient’s efforts. I stay with the truth. I’m not going to give false praise. My patient is working hard and doing their best. More importantly, they are a person of value and worthy of love and support. I was glad for the opportunity to give them that message.
I think the best description of how I approach being a psychotherapist is to say that I “re-parent” my patients.
When I was training in psychotherapy in the 70s, reparenting was part of the classic model. I believe our profession has moved away from taking on this role but I can’t imagine doing what I do in any other way.
The people who come to see me usually have significant problems. Their traumatic issues and experiences cut deeply into who they are and disrupt their lives and relationships. I would say that every one of them suffers from seriously flawed parenting. Growing up in their families of origin included either harsh discipline, neglect, alcoholism or drug use, or some type of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
The people my patients loved and trusted and depended on for their lives – their parents – significantly betrayed them in some way.
There are important things they didn’t learn; they weren’t able to grow up in the right ways. They want their lives to be good but things keep going wrong for them in ways they sometimes understand and sometimes are completely confused about. They need to be reparented.
And I want to say, right off, that this role is a huge one to shoulder. To do it right, with integrity and humility, is very, very hard. The burden of responsibility to reparent my patients is as awesome a responsibility as being an actual parent of a child.
It was in the role of a parent with one of my patients last week that I needed to share one of the most difficult experiences of my life. My patient was at a critical turning point and needed to be able to learn from my example, like a good father helping his kids learn from his mistakes. Believe me, I thought about this very carefully. I don’t like sharing this story and I need to be absolutely sure that by sharing it I’m really going to help someone.
I decided to go ahead. As usual after telling this story, I ended up sweating, drained, and shaking inside. I had trouble sleeping that night.
I hope my patient heard me. Now I’ll see where he goes with it.
Families of service members killed in the line of duty have suffered the ultimate loss of their loved ones. Their sons or daughters, husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, will never come home. Their loss and grief are real and tangible.
But many families of service members who do return from active duty also feel that they have “lost” their loved one. To a lesser degree – but still significantly – the service man or woman they knew before deployment has changed beyond their recognition.
Military families understand that the experience of combat changes people. They would be concerned if their loved one returned from deployment exactly as they used to be, as though nothing had happened to them. But many families and loved ones are unprepared for the stranger who at long last walks through the door.
Loved ones expect a time of transition. But when time goes on and on and their veteran doesn’t readjust – or is possibly getting even more troubled – they wonder what to do. They can feel pain for the lost relationship, frustrated over how to get help, and worn out at the burden of care placed on them.
Military personnel are changed by their service . . .
. . . physically – by wounds and injuries, and the lingering disabilities they may produce
. . . emotionally – by anxiety, depression, rage, terror, and shame
. . . mentally – by changed attitudes about the world and the people in it, or by the side effects of psychotropic and pain medications prescribed for visible and “invisible” wounds
. . . spiritually – by a loss of hope and faith, by anger at God, by shame for violating deeply held principles of conduct in a hellish theater of war
The Bernstein Institute for Trauma Treatment, with the support of nonprofit Sonoma Coast Trauma Treatment, is in the process of forming a support group for loved ones of veterans struggling with the traumatic effects of their service. If you or someone you know needs our help at this time, please get in touch.
A veteran and his wife sleep side by side in their darkened bedroom. The man moves restlessly under the covers. The woman, long familiar with his insomnia and night terrors, is somewhat conscious of his rising agitation. Something happens. It might be a sound from the external world – a passing car, a gust of wind – or a shift in the internal dream world of the man. Suddenly he is on his feet, dragging his stunned wife out of bed. He grabs the knife on his nightstand and braces his wife forcefully against the wall. She knows him as her husband, the man she loves, a troubled veteran with PTSD. But the veteran doesn’t know his wife. She is the enemy. As she pleads with him, he slowly recognizes where he is, who she is. He releases her, flooded with remorse and shame.
A dramatic scenario, I’m sure you’ll agree. Something you might see in a movie, such as the recently released American Sniper. But it’s also a true scenario, as it happened to me. I was that veteran.
My first wife and I are not alone in experiences of that kind. Many patients and people I’ve met over the years share similar stories. Many veterans and their spouses or partners make the decision to sleep apart – many of them eventually break up – because veterans with PTSD often have great difficulty with relationships and intimacy.
Intimate relationships are characterized by vulnerability. With a loved one, we drop our defenses and expose ourselves and our feelings. For veterans struggling with PTSD and other military-related traumas, vulnerability can be terrifying and intolerable. Their partners, paradoxically because they are beloved, become dangerous threats to be avoided. Veterans can fear losing control and hurting those they love. Sometimes they even sufficiently lose touch with reality to believe their partners really are the enemy. Everyone suffers, including the veteran’s loved one.
That’s why I’m in the process of forming a support group for loved ones of veterans struggling with PTSD. I’m reaching out to spread the word that the Bernstein Institute, in partnership with nonprofit Sonoma Coast Trauma Treatment, has help and hope to offer. If you or someone you know is in need of this kind of group, please contact us at 707-781-3335.