By Kathleen M. Gallagher
I recently attended some training on “trauma-informed care.” It was quite eye-opening. Traumatic experiences in childhood are more common than we’d like to believe. Research indicates that more than 60 percent of adults experienced some form of trauma in childhood, events such as the divorce of parents, ongoing drug use in their home, physical violence, or sexual abuse. I learned that one out of four girls and one out of six boys experience some form of sexual abuse before age 18.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and others have been studying these “adverse childhood experiences” for years, consistently finding correlations between these experiences, negative health and social consequences throughout the lifespan. People who experience trauma in childhood have higher rates of depression, anxiety, drug addiction/alcoholism, suicide, violence, criminality, even health issues like obesity, bronchitis and heart disease. For certain, trauma is the root of many problems.
Here’s why: trauma actually rewires the brain. Traumatic events create measurable physiological changes in the brain. For children, this neurological damage interferes with the natural process of maturation, triggering the “flight or fight” reaction. Their brains are revamped to expect danger. They can’t “get over it” or “move on.”
As adults, these people often have safety and trust issues. They can’t manage feelings or form positive relationships. They have trouble coping and problem-solving. They can live in a near-constant state of discomfort and helplessness.
Moreover, hurt people do hurt people: an estimated one-third of abused and neglected children victimize their own children. Given the scourge of child sexual abuse revealed in our Church, is there anything we can do to break the cycle, lessen the damage and help these children of God to recover? Yes, there is. The human brain has an amazing quality of plasticity; it has the ability to be refurbished and renewed.
We must swathe victims of child sexual abuse in a blanket of trauma-informed care, acknowledge their pain and listen to them for as long as they need to talk. We need to help them work through their trauma, and understand the root and function of their negative behaviors. We have to avoid labeling them, blaming them, judging them.
Instead, we need to help them rebuild their internal strength, resilience and coping mechanisms. We need to show them how to engage in healthy social activities and safe relationships. We need to support them with compassion and sensitivity, and fill their lives with hope. We must help them recognize their innate dignity, and show them how they can once again “be not afraid.”
Our Church and its leaders must become models of trustworthiness – the sooner, the better. United in Baptism, we’re one body in Christ. Right now, the body is weak and wounded, but we have the ability to aid its healing and recovery.
Gallagher is the director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference.