Children of Trauma: Rediscovering Your Discarded Self
By Jane Middelton-Moz
Imagine what it would be like to become the healthiest person you could be...
This is the inherent right of each individual but when lingering emotional trauma from our childhood blocks the normal developmental process, we get struck. As each of us strives to become the healthiest person we possibly can, we will have to come face-to-face with emotional fears that may be the result of traumatic childhoods. Although that journey may be paved with the paid of unresolved grief and unrecognized loss, this book will serve as the map to guide you and help you rediscover your discarded self...
...the best self you were always meant to be .
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Paperback: 104 pages
Publisher: Health Communications, Inc.
Release Date: June 1, 1989
Category: Childhood Issues/Recovery
The Discarded Self
An Overview of Children of Trauma
Later In 1984
this safe place i call
home of my mother:
what does it offer?
calamity was its fuel for heat.
sorrow fed our mouths for dinner.
and you, mother, i fear you still.
this place i call
home of my mother:
i say i no longer live here
but i find pieces of my heart
in each room.
must i claim them?
they are half eaten, half rotten.
i walk through the rooms.
step by step. piece by piece.
i place the pieces in a sack.
and you, mother, i fear you still.
this safe place i called
home of my mother:
i have my own home.
you have your sorrows. i have my pieces.
and you, mother, i fear you less.
Standing still in the same spot for the past five minutes, the little girl remained perfectly erect. Her small-boned hands were clutched behind her. Her tiny leotard covered legs were crossed at the ankles and held tightly together. The pressed white pinafore was without a wrinkle.
She spoke a little louder, "Mommy please, I need to go to the bathroom." Four, perhaps five years old, the little girl appeared much older. As she stood near her engrossed parents in Chicago's O'Hare airport, Sandy was too patient, too sedate for a normal child of her age.
Fighting in strained intense tones, her parents seemed oblivious to the child's persistent yet patient requests. Another few minutes passed. Slowly she reached up and touched her mother's arm. "Mommy, please!" The mother grabbed the little girl by her shoulders, "Well go then. Sandy, will you grow up? Can't you see I'm busy talking to your father? Go!"
While her parents resumed muffled retaliations above the noise of the airport hubbub, Sandy backed away. Pulling herself even more erect, she started walking hesitantly down the crowded hall. A curious marionette in a well-starched pinafore, Sandy paused now and again. Trying her best to look grown up, she mostly appeared frightened, confused, alone.
Months and miles away, another child was playing quietly under the chairs of his mother's table in an airport cafeteria. Jimmy appeared to be about four. His very young mother painted and repainted her face, sipping cocktails with abrupt anxious movements. Every few minutes she would jump up and run to the door, nervously checking for the arrival of the plane for which she was so impatiently waiting.
Jimmy darted after her, "Wait, Mommy, wait!" She would turn, put one hand on her hip and point a threatening finger in his direction.
"Get back there! Do you want to ruin this relationship, too? Damn it, Jimmy, leave me alone!" Glaring at his mother, he retreated to the table and began taking sugar packets out of a bowl and tossing them one by one on the floor. For this behavior, Jimmy would get soundly shaken, slapped on the backside and banished to his stainless steel shelter. "Get back under there, you brat. You're just like your drunken old man! Stay out of the way!"
During one such interaction, the mother pushed her drink at him, trying to be careful that no one witnessed the offering. He drank some and made a face. She force fed him some more, "Look at you, you like it, don't you? You're going to be a drunk just like that no good dad of yours!"
Dragging him out from under the table, his mom combed his hair with abrupt rough motions. Finished with his grooming, she stared at Jimmy with blank harshness and shoved him back under the table prison. He gazed up at his mom while she retouched her lipstick one more time.
In another place and time four-year-old Danny stood, eyes opened wide, marveled by the abundance of a department store toy section. The Yupik Eskimo child was running his hand gently across the face of a blond, white-skinned doll. His parents stood close by, silent, stoic, glancing at him frequently, nervously. Their eyes seemed to suggest, perhaps urge Danny to remember that gentle touches were enough.
Across the aisle from Danny, a little white boy sat cross-legged on the floor. Zooming a truck in circles around himself, the boy filled the air with imitations of diesel engines and air horns.
After a time, the little boy's father, obviously frustrated from looking for his child, appeared at the end of the aisle, "Damn it, son!" he yelled, "Get up off that floor; you look like a drunk, squattin' Indian!"
Danny's parents looked away immediately. Their eyes fell to the floor as they moved slowly toward their boy. There was a sense of urgency in still downcast glances. With hushed briskness, Danny's parents whisked him out of the store. Not a word was spoken.
Sandy, Jimmy and Danny are children of trauma. Throughout their developmental years they faced "cumulative traumas" such as those described above. (Kahn, 1963). They might never remember what really happened, yet the buried feelings and emotional reactions to these experiences may direct the course of their lives. As adults these individuals may suffer from panic attacks, bulimia, chronic depression, antisocial behavior, compulsive behavioral problems and addictions. The therapeutic map and other necessary support required to work through, resolve and master the traumas may never be offered. They might not regain the discarded self that was lost in a childhood over which they had no control.
Adult children of trauma often become locked in unhealthy and addictive relationships. These patterns reflect repeated survival attempts to master old pain. They may choose not to have children, fearing they would be unhealthy parents. If they do have offspring, these parents may not bond to their children or may become over enmeshed, overprotective or permissive. They may attempt to reparent themselves (through their children) in order to heal their own wounds.
Some children of trauma may eventually become leaders of corporations, doctors, psychologists, artists or poets. The pain and sensitivity of past experiences may help them create gifts to the world, yet many will treat themselves with disdain and neglect through workaholism, extreme perfectionism or chronic illness.
Better choices are possible. As adults these children can learn that they are survivors of trauma and look at themselves with feelings of respect for that survival. They can learn to believe in themselves enough to risk a long journey back through the pain. This process will allow them to reclaim their discarded self and free them to live, bond and break the generational cycle of pain. Sandy, Jimmy and Danny may risk allowing themselves to feel the initial pain of being welcomed to the planet earth, a welcoming that children of trauma may ever have experienced.
Sandy, before the age of five, is already learning that it is not all right to have needs and feelings. She is an "unwelcomed visitor" who must take care of herself, control her needs and stay out of the way. In order to be accepted (allowed to stay), she must prematurely function like an adult. She is learning to focus on the needs of those around her and obliterate her most important developmental task: identity formation.
At the airport she was eventually taken to the bathroom by a well-meaning adult who was afraid for her safety. Sandy may have learned through this experience that strangers are more trustworthy than those responsible for her care. This lesson could have frightening implications for her if she continues to suffer the neglect experienced on this particular day.
Jimmy, on the other hand, is learning that he is more powerful than life. This lesson creates a tremendous lack of security and a need to act out more, seeking the outside controls which make him feel safe. He is learning that he can externalize his mother's anxiety and depression. Jimmy is also learning the blueprint for his life. He is bad, causes nothing but trouble and is destined to become an alcoholic. He has already tasted the liquid which may later sedate inner feelings of terror, pain and loneliness.
Danny's lessons may lead to the internalization of cultural self-hate. He is hearing that there is something wrong with him because of the color of his skin and the ways of his culture. The dolls he loves are not like him in color or features. Powerful figures on the family television set or officials in the school system are also different from him. He is already hearing a statistic which he may come to believe, that Indians are alcoholics (and doomed to die at earlier ages).
If his parents remain speechless about their own past pain and internalized shame, Danny will learn to hide his feelings to protect them from further distress. Ethnically or racially different children are subject to a sense of shame that can turn into self-hate and intense isolation. If the parents have adapted to their own shame through learned helplessness, the child's world becomes divided. Ensuing conflicts in loyalties create an outside and inside reality that deeply injures a sense of self.
When we look at Sandy and Jimmy, we do not see behavior typical of happy-go-lucky, four-year-old children who have in only two years' time become comfortable with learning the "I." Nor do they within that knowledge begin really exploring their new world of self, asking hundreds of curious questions, showing expansiveness, energy and experimenting with language, cause and effect, imagination and tall tales.
Normal four-year-olds are busy learning to sort out the real from make-believe, questioning for the first time, "Where did I come from?" and "What happens when I die?" We see the curious child between four and five involving a parent for the first time in serious discussions of life. In both Sandy and Jimmy, however, we see children focused on parental behavior rather than their own developing language and curiosity. We do not see the shocked response of a traumatized child: frenzied, frozen, panicked and regressed. Instead, Sandy and Jimmy exhibit behaviors which indicate experience with trauma. They already show signs of massive defenses established through repeated traumas which make them less sensitive to emotional neglect and abuse. This can be likened to behavior adopted by soldiers experiencing war.
"Soldiers can be hardened in training by the battle of experience; while certain physiological expressions of anxiety were considered normal in what was once called a soldier's baptism by fire, the seasoned soldier may take similar situations in stride."
© 1996. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Children Of Trauma by Jane Middelton-Moz. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.