One of the hardest things about supporting an adult with complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the lack of support for the families.
It’s not that there aren’t supportive people because there are. It’s not that there isn’t information and education on childhood trauma because there is. It’s not that there aren’t resources on self-care and taking time for oneself and other important topics related to chronic conditions. There are.
It’s that there are very few regular, long-term, informed, interactive forums where partners and families can gather to share and give and receive support from one another.
There are very few supports like this for the families of adults with complex PTSD.
And this must change.
Why Do Families of Adults with complex PTSD Need Stronger Supports?
Because the impact of childhood trauma on an individual and relationships is complicated.
The best way to describe the impact of childhood trauma is with the term complex trauma (sometimes called complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or developmental trauma). Complex trauma occurs when there are many traumas over a period of time. It is complex because it is not the result of a single event, but rather the cumulative effect of multiple incidents. Childhood trauma, including abuse, can be a predisposing factor in its development.
Symptoms of complex trauma can include:
- Difficulties controlling emotions (self-regulation)
- Periods of losing concentration or shutting down (dissociation)
- Complete loss of memories or remembering only pieces of information
- Feelings of disconnection from one’s physical body
- Difficulty identifying emotions
- Disturbed relationships and cutting oneself off from others
- Inability to trust others
- Vulnerability to abuse and exploitation
- Intense feelings of shame and guilt
- Physical symptoms with no medical cause*
Many adult survivors experienced abuse from their primary caregivers within their childhood homes. The relationships that were meant to be nurturing and protective became relationships of abuse and betrayal. This radically disrupts the way survivors view themselves, others and the world. Many survivors admit they struggle with a deep fear of people although they desperately wish to have ‘normal’ relationships with others.
Furthermore, spending part or an entire childhood in chronic conditions of un-safety, abuse or neglect changes the developing brain. The survivor’s brain literally adapts to the traumatic environment so that by the time the survivor is an adult, the brain is hard-wired for fear, hypervigilance, and often, dissociation. The child becomes an adult who continues to interact with others out of these adaptions, which are now maladaptive.
Children whose families and homes do not provide consistent safety, comfort, and protection may develop ways of coping that allow them to survive and function day-to-day. For instance, they may be overly sensitive to the moods of others, always watching to figure out what the adults around them are feeling and how they will behave. They may withhold their own emotions from others, never letting them see when they are afraid, sad, or angry. These kinds of learned adaptations make sense when physical and/or emotional threats are ever-present. As a child grows up and encounters situations and relationships that are safe, these adaptations are no longer helpful, and may, in fact, be counterproductive and interfere with the capacity to live, love, and be loved. – The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
It is the past learned adaptations continuing in the present that create relational challenges for families and survivors. It is why the responses of survivors may seem confusing, contradictory and unpredictable. It is why a survivor’s actions might feel hurtful to a partner. It is why survivors may make choices that are unhealthy and even destructive.
All of this is why families of survivors need stronger supports.
Why Information Is Not Enough
A growing body of research suggests that support groups are extremely effective at alleviating depression, isolation and grief. I know partners and families struggle with these. Yet, despite the growing number of in person and online support groups for survivors, I have found very few for families. (Update: currently, there are six support groups for partners in North America.)
What is available are PDFs, blogs, and sometimes, pamphlets from a therapist’s office–most on how to help a survivor and not many on how to support yourself while supporting a survivor. And while these reading materials are important, I’m not sure a print out of information is enough when your survivor partner or family member is struggling and you are feeling overwhelmed.
Partners especially need trauma-informed support groups. We need places to converse, to share, to ask questions, and to receive validation of our experiences. We need communities where we can learn and process information on childhood trauma together. We need mutual support so we don’t feel alone and so we don’t burn out. We need each other so that we can better support the adult survivors in our lives.
And that’s where I come in.
Today, I am launching two closed Facebook groups for supporters.
Partners to Survivors with Complex Trauma is for those in intimate relationships with adult survivors. If you call yourself a partner, spouse, common-law, boy/girlfriend, fiance this group is for you. Please note: this group is also open to individuals who are separated and/or recently divorced. I recognize the potential need for this demographic to have a safe place to process the impact of living with a survivor with complex trauma.
Friends to Survivors with Complex Trauma is for other supporters: Friends, other family members, a concerned colleague, community members, and more. Due to a lack of interest, this group is no longer active.
Both groups will provide a consistent, interactive presence for those of us who care deeply about survivors– and who need more than just another PDF.
How to Join
- You must have a personal Facebook page to join. Go here to set one up.
- Click on the link for the group you wish to join.
- You will be asked two questions.
- I will approve your request.
- Please take time to read the group guidelines.
I am excited about the potential to build stronger supports for families. I believe that when families receive the support they need, supporters and survivors benefit.
Please think about joining me on this new venture. And please share with partners who need stronger support and encouragement for themselves.
Let’s build stronger supports for families together.
Symptom list from course notes Trauma Recovery Coaching Certification, lesson 7, Bobbi L. Parish, MA CTRC.
Photo source: Brook Cagle