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Secondary Trauma

One of the things all the young people we treat have in common, sadly, is they have all experienced significant trauma in their young lives. Having been in the business of caring for young people, like the ones we treat here at AK Child & Family, for the past 37 years, I wonder when I will have heard it all. When will the stories start getting easier to hear? That day has not come – the stories of some of the young people we help are heartbreaking; haunting for even the most seasoned staff among us. There are fancy terms in our field that capture the down side of being witness to these stories. Terms like” compassion fatigue”, or “secondary trauma” or “vicarious trauma”, but regardless of what its called, we here at AK Child & Family don’t only have to care for the young people and their families we treat, we have to care for each other.

When I started in the field, we had a different take on how to handle the emotional feelings one experienced when confronted with these sad stories of trauma. We were told to “buck up”, “you will get used to it”, ”nose to the grindstone”, and “the more you work, the less the stories will bother you”….and these were the words of wisdom handed out by the veterans. We were told to look up to those who could harden themselves against such feelings. Compartmentalizing (separate our “real” feelings from the feelings we have for the people we treat), was the only way to handle the tragedy that were commonly laid before us.

Today, we know that stuffing those feelings into our subconscious, no matter how we try, tends to have a negative effect on us. Words like coldness, distance, rigidness and callousness come to mind. When people try to separate or compartmentalize their feelings on an ongoing basis, they describe having symptoms like “feelings of hopelessness and helplessness”, a sense of “not ever being able to do enough” and “hyper-vigilance”: all symptoms, not surprisingly, of the very children and families we treat.

We now understand that secondary trauma, just like second-hand smoke, can be very damaging and we must take care of ourselves and each other in ways that 30 years ago would be thought to be counterintuitive. Instead of “nose to the grindstone”, we need to find balance in our work and home life. Instead of building a wall between us and the person we are treating, we seek to build relationships. We now understand that the callousness that comes out at work, shows up at home and that stuffing our feelings does not work out so well in the long run. That is why we seek to keep our staff from working long hours. We want them to take regular breaks – seek formal and informal supports. We ask our staff to be present and have fun at work, so they can be present and have fun at home. We know that the trauma experienced by the young people we serve has to be replaced by something. We choose to be emotionally present, build full and healthy relationships with them, and model healthy coping skills to stressors in our lives. In these ways, we are serving as role models and caregivers to this future generation.