Wildfire Recovery and Healing

Wildfire has devastated our community. Lives have been lost, homes and businesses destroyed, and individuals and families dislocated. Firefighters have labored in high-risk conditions. Law enforcement personnel have protected our neighborhoods. Community organizations and countless individuals have stepped forward to offer refuge to evacuees. My heart goes out to everyone in my community who is suffering in the traumatic aftermath of the Wine Country wildfires. Their impact will be felt for years to come.

I’ve worked in the field of trauma recovery for over 47 years. I’ve seen that after a crisis passes, the steps to recovery and healing can begin. While recovering from trauma isn’t simple and will take time, I offer five suggestions for starting the process:

1. Allow yourself to grieve.
Give yourself permission to feel and express your grief. Grief includes feelings of loss and sadness, but also of anger, distress and frustration. Shortcutting the grief process postpones your recovery from trauma. Buried feelings don’t go away, they fester. Grieve your losses.
2. Deal with reality without succumbing to fear.
Traumatic experiences involve threats of danger and loss of control. Fear is a natural response in such situations but allowing your fears to take over will only make your situation worse. Discipline yourself to focus on taking one step at a time. Don’t obsess about the past or the unknown future. So much can seem chaotic and unpredictable now. Ask yourself, what is the next constructive thing I can do? Then act, keep moving forward.
3. Look for new opportunities.
During dramatic upheavals, it’s easy to lose sight of new opportunities. What have you been hanging onto which it would be better to let go of? In what ways would it be better NOT to go back to “the ways things were?” I have seen that trauma produces not only post-traumatic stress but also post-traumatic growth. Change can be for the better.
4. Find things to be grateful for.
What can you be grateful for? I’m not suggesting that you feel gratitude for pain and loss. If you and your loved ones survived the fires, be grateful for the chance to rebuild and start again. If you were evacuated and received support, be grateful for that. If you helped hurting people in our community, be grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in their lives.
5. Help others.
Probably the quickest way to temporarily set aside your own pain is to help someone who is suffering, who may have had a harder time than you. Or, reach out to our first responders who have worked hard to protect us. Continue to care for others and you’ll find your own burdens will feel lighter.

In my years as a therapist, I’ve seen all kinds of trauma – combat, crime, abuse, violence, even our recent financial recession. I’ve helped many people get through traumatic life experiences. I know it can be done. It’s urgent to start the process of recovery as soon as possible after the immediate crisis is over. My staff and I are committed to helping our community to develop resilience, heal and find hope. Let’s reach out, come together, hold each other up. My heart is with you.

Wildfire Recovery and Healing

Recovery and healing are possible after traumatic experiences, such as the recent wildfires in Sonoma and Napa Counties. Peter Bernstein shares five suggestions for starting the process.

A Different View of the Rachel Dolezal Debate

Dr. Peter Bernstein shares his perspective on the debate about local NAACP President Rachel Dolezal.



My Heart for Veterans and Their Families: Part 1

First in a series on our responsibility to help our wounded veterans and their families when they return home.



Trauma Therapist Podcast

Townsend Article Pictures 001Last 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.

Parenting Styles

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

“Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma” – by Catherine Woodiwiss

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.

Self-Pity and Grief

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.

Good Parent, Bad Parent

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.