Why Homeschoolers Need to Understand Trauma Symptoms

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CC image courtesy of Flickr, John Liu.
CC image courtesy of Flickr, John Liu.

Understanding trauma symptoms is key to helping abuse survivors in our homeschooling communities.

When a child experiences a traumatic event such as child abuse or witnessing domestic violence, the  impact that event has on the child is exhibited by trauma symptoms. These symptoms can be affective, behavioral, and/or cognitive. 

Affective symptoms are seen when a child is unable to adequately control their affective (emotional) states. For example, if a child is constantly anxious, this can be because a traumatic event has forced the child to feel generally unsafe and thus hypervigilant. Homeschooling parents should be particularly observant of this phenomenon because the anxiety caused by a traumatic event can lead to parentification. Parentification occurs when a child tries to act above their age (taking on responsibilities above and beyond their maturity level) in order to ward off future trauma. Since many homeschooled children are praised for acting beyond their age or maturity level, it is important that parents know how to distinguish because simple maturity and a maturity indicative of trauma.

 Behavioral symptoms are seen when a child behaves in certain ways to avoid painful feelings. For example, a child may try to avoid anything or anyone that reminds them of a traumatic event. A child sexually abused by a pastor may become frightened by other pastors. One homeschooling leader’s advice of forcing a child fearful of a deacon to reciprocate that deacon’s display of physical affection is thus unwise. A child may also replicate the trauma inflicted on them onto another person, acting out in physically or sexually inappropriate ways in play with other children.

Finally, cognitive symptoms of trauma are seen when a child has to alter the way they see and understand the world to reduce how painful the traumatic event was and is. The following explanation of cognitive trauma symptoms comes from Judith A. Cohen, Anthony P. Mannarino, and Esther Deblingner’s 2006 book Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents:

Following a traumatic event, children will typically search for an explanation for why something so terrible has happened to them or their loved ones. If no rational explanation is found, children may develop irrational beliefs about causation in order to gain some sense of control or predictability. In our experience the most common irrational belief involves children blaming themselves, either by taking responsibility for the even itself (“He sexually abused me because of how I dressed”) or for not foreseeing and avoiding the event (e.g., “I should have known Dad would be in a bad mood—why didn’t I warn Mom to leave the house so he wouldn’t have beaten her up?”; “I should have stopped my brother from going to school today so he wouldn’t have gotten shot on the way home”). Alternatively, although not blaming themselves directly for the traumatic event, children may come to believe that they are bad, shameful, or otherwise lacking in some way that “justifies” bad things happening to them (e.g., “There must be something wrong with me for this to have happened to me”). In this manner the world remains fair, predictable, and makes sense; it is only they who are deserving of bad fortune. Children exposed to ongoing interpersonal trauma (child abuse or neglect, domestic violence) seem particularly prone to these types of cognitions, perhaps because these acts are intentional, personally directed, and typically perpetrated by parents or other adults who would ordinarily be expected to protect rather than harm children. Developing realistic cognitions of responsibility (i.e., blaming the perpetrator) may be extremely difficult and painful for these children (11).

Survivors of abuse often talk about the importance of avoiding “victim-blaming,” or blaming the survivor of a traumatic event for the fact that the traumatic event happened. I have seen people who have not experienced the trauma of abuse mock or make light of the phrase “victim-blaming,” seeing it as a cliche or an epithet mindlessly thrown at anyone an abuse survivor dislikes. 

I think it is important, therefore, to understand that “victim-blaming” is actually a real phenomenon — and often, victim-blaming is a self-inflicted wound. When people blame a survivor, they are adding pain on top of pain. Not only are they themselves hurting the survivor, they are also encouraging the survivor to continue their own process of self-blame. This is why it is so crucial that we understand how to love and support survivors in healthy ways — not only in our communities, but also the legal system.

Blaming one’s self for the trauma one feels is, as seen above, a common symptom of trauma. If we want to commit to helping abuse survivors, including abused children in our homeschooling communities, we need to understand this fact. And we need to commit to doing everything we can to help traumatized people to know — and believe — that they are not at fault when another person hurts them. 

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Author: R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is the Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.